Antiperspirant and deodorant: what’s the difference?

By the 07 November 2019

Modifié le 06 January 2020

Rush hour on public transport, racing to be on time for the nanny and then off to work… You’re already dripping with sweat and the day’s barely begun. You might have been tempted by an antiperspirant that caught your eye in the deodorant aisle. More than 24 hours of dryness? That sounds perfect! But is such a radical solution really advisable? How do you choose between a deodorant and an antiperspirant?


Should you tackle sweating or odors?

What is it that actually bothers us about sweating? On average, we sweat around 1 litre per day without even realising. We can sweat even more of course, depending on the weather, the activities we do and the state of our health. It can therefore be very difficult to ignore sweat: feelings of dampness, sweat patches that turn your clothes yellow, the smell… We have two main options when it comes to fighting against these effects: deodorants and antiperspirants – two very different methods of action for the same objective.


Deodorant acts after the sweat is produced and mainly tackles odors, by masking and preventing them. Yes, it is possible to sweat without causing bad odors, since our sweat, which is made up of 99% water, does not actually smell bad itself. It’s the bacteria digesting the other 1% of our sweat (notably proteins and lipids) that causes the smell. Therefore, it’s very important to prevent this bacteria from multiplying. An effective deodorant will combine several active ingredients to act in three ways:

  • Absorbing agents that are slightly astringent to absorb the dampness and regulate excessive sweating.
  • Masking agents to counteract bad odors
  • Antiseptic agents to prevent the development of bacteria and thus preventing odors. 


An antiperspirant tackles the problem head on: it simply blocks the secretion of sweat. This is obviously attractive to those who sweat a lot, and is very effective. You’ll be wondering why simple deodorants exist if antiperspirants are so effective: with one product you can get rid of sweat entirely. No more dampness and no more bad smells. Antiperspirants generally use one incredibly effective unique active ingredient: aluminium salts. Sounds great doesn’t it? Unfortunately it’s not as good as it sounds. 


Antiperspirant: effectiveness at the expense of your health?

The way in which antiperspirants carry out their function is already problematic in itself – it prevents a vital natural process. Perspiration is essential for our body’s healthy function: it helps with temperature regulation and the skin’s emunctory function, excreting toxins and waste products. No need to panic just yet though, the area of skin affected by antiperspirants is too small to really threaten these functions, but it’s still not entirely without risks. Sweat can still be secreted from other places (neck, face, back etc.) via eccrine glands, but without the toxins and waste products that would have been secreted by the apocrine glands in the armpits. Pheromones are also not excreted, which puts you at risk of a hormone imbalance. In short, you don’t resolve your problem with excessive sweating and you can even cause yourself other health problems. Also, be aware: excessive sweating can be a symptom of various medical problems, so masking it and preventing the excretion of toxins probably isn’t the best idea! Forget antiperspirants and speak to your doctor. 


Do you know how the aluminium salts in antiperspirants really work? They create a small amount of local inflammation in your armpit. The skin thickens in response and progressively blocks off the pores that secrete sweat. It creates a sort of stopper on the surface of the skin to keep the sweat within the body. Doesn’t sound like a very good idea, does it? Potential secondary effects of daily antiperspirant use are even worse: irritation, eczema and even painful cysts and inflammation in the sweat glands. The skin on your armpits which is thin and damp, is not the easiest to treat…


What about limiting the use of antiperspirants to special occasions or important meetings? Yes it’s true that this isn’t as bad as daily use, but do you know the common characteristic all aluminium salts share? They are toxic because the aluminium they contain is able to accumulate in the body little by little. They are suspected of playing a role in the development of bone lesions, anemia and diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons, and are even thought to be a cause of breast cancer. Studies have shown that breast cancer most commonly starts in the exact location where we apply deodorant, where there are also mammary glands. It’s ironic, since sweating is actually the main way for the body to get rid of the aluminium that accumulates inside of it. Not content with the aluminium they put into our bodies, antiperspirants stop us getting rid of the little bit of aluminium we’re actually able to get rid of ourselves!


Of course, these studies are still subject to debate. These diseases are the result of numerous other factors and the doses of aluminium that penetrate the body via antiperspirants are low. But if we have the opportunity to avoid them, why not do it! Keeping your distance is a good principle of precaution, particularly if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or suffering from kidney issues. It’s even better to avoid antiperspirants that are sprays as the area of skin they apply the product to is larger and there is a real risk of inhalation. 


Is Simple deodorant a safe option? 

So are you safe if you choose a deodorant instead? Unfortunately it’s not that simple.


It’s not quite enough to just ensure that your product isn’t labelled as an antiperspirant. Manufacturers know that we’ve started to wise up to their products. The term antiperspirant that’s been used for so long to camouflage aluminium salts is becoming more and more demonized, so it’s more difficult to trick consumers who are better informed. However, it’s not obligatory to state in black and white that a product acts as an antiperspirant. As a result, cosmetics claiming to be simple deodorants actually have antiperspirant compositions. Does your deodorant promise you an incredibly long period of effectiveness or to overcome even the strongest of smells? You might want to have a look at that ingredients list. The quest for the product that offers the most extreme effectiveness is endless. It seems pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it? A deodorant that works for 96 hours… but why?!


In short, the one piece of advice that I must stress, is to look closely at your product’s label, as it’s obligatory to state whether aluminium salts are used. They are often at the top of the ingredients list so are quite easy to spot, under the name Aluminium or alum. Aluminium chlorohydrate, is the most commonly used and is authorized for use without a limit on its concentration. Aluminium lactate, aluminium zirconium, aluminium stearate, aluminium hydroxychloride, aluminium chloride, aluminium chlorohydrate, Aluminium sesquichlorohydrate, aluminium zirconium trichlorohydrex GLY are all other examples. Aluminium chloride is the most effective and also the most irritant. It’s found nearly exclusively in de-perspirants, which promise to stop your sweat glands from working for several days. Some, which are toxic to the lungs, are banned in aerosols. If you’re thinking of switching to a “natural” antiperspirant, don’t bother. They generally contain Alum stone, otherwise known as aluminium salts. How harmful they are continues to be debated, but as a precaution, we avoid them completely.


So there you go, you’re sure that your deodorant doesn’t secretly act as an antiperspirant and it doesn’t contain any aluminium salts? That’s… a good start. Deodorant remains one of the most problematic cosmetics: Triclosan, the endocrine disruptor which is responsible for the appearance of resistant bacteria, synthetic perfumes which are endocrine disruptors and allergens, toxic preservatives… the list of substances to avoid is long. Perhaps more so than for other products, you should choose your deodorant carefully. An organic deodorant guarantees the absence of aluminium salts but don’t stop there! Don’t just look for an organic label, look for a high quality natural deodorant, that’s effective without substances that are dangerous for your health and the environment. To best look after your skin, try plant powders known for their purifying, astringent and antiseptic qualities to absorb dampness and plant oils and hydrolats to help soothe and reinforce the skin. Then, depending on your skin’s tolerance, possible allergies and not when pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s possible to add effective and perfumed essential oils.


Yes, antiperspirants are super effective, but avoiding sweat patches simply isn’t worth subjecting your body to the potential health risks. Even the best deodorants, that aren’t harmful to your body or health won’t be able to entirely compete with antiperspirants, it’s true. Particularly if you normally use an antiperspirant, it might take a little bit of time to readjust to being natural, for your body to relearn how to regulate its secretion of sweat and for you, to get used to the feeling again. But once you’ve gotten through this stage, a high quality deodorant with natural active ingredients that you’ve chosen will be incredibly effective, whilst being gentle on your body.


This post is also available in french.


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