A few years ago, Emily-Anne Paul read something that seemed to link breast cancer and antiperspirant. For the 25-year-old, that was enough of a warning. She ditched her mainstream stick. Since then, the former campaigns coordinator for Toxic Free Canada has developed an all-natural deodorant routine: LUSH bar in the winter and Tom’s of Maine in the sweatier summer.
She’s been doing this for almost a decade and, so far, no one has complained. At least, not to her face.
“There’s a lot of evidence out there” that mainstream antiperspirants contain dangerous chemicals, Paul told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from Victoria. “At Toxic Free Canada, I worked with people mostly in their late teens and early 20s. They understand that there’s a danger with the products, but they’re not sure what the problem is. So it’s a vague understanding. There’s not enough information out there to make them change their behaviour.”
Indeed, trying to pin down the toxicity of your average pit stick is mind-boggling. Scientists have been pumping out peer-reviewed studies about three common ingredients for the past decade: aluminum, parabens, and propylene glycol. Some studies suggest that antiperspirants are linked to breast cancer, such as the 2003 European Journal of Cancer paper “An Earlier Age of Breast Cancer Diagnosis Related to More Frequent Use of Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Underarm Shaving”. Others suggest there’s no connection, such as the 2006 Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal article “Antiperspirant Use as a Risk Factor for Breast Cancer in Iraq”. As for the aluminum-Alzheimer’s link, the debate is hot but so far inconclusive.
As consumers, we’ve been here before. In 2008, Canada became the first country to ban bisphenol A, an organic compound linked to endocrine disruption and used to make plastic and resins for, among other things, baby bottles. Starting decades earlier, scientists had floated concerns about BPA. The chemical was restricted as part of a federal chemical screening program called the Challenge, and some products were yanked off the shelves. Two years later, on October 13 just past, the federal government formally classified BPA as a toxic substance.
The Challenge leaves Canadians in a difficult position. On the one hand, it lets us know which common household chemicals are potentially dangerous. On the other hand, we don’t know which product will contain the next bisphenol A—some common ingredient that is all of a sudden banned. Could it be one of those antiperspirant ingredients?
For some Canadians, the message has gotten through: don’t wait for a scientist or bureaucrat to tell you what isn’t safe. Take precautionary measures.
This became clear in June 2010 when the Body Shop launched DeoDry—its first full line of deodorants since the company started 34 years ago. Within two weeks, all that was left on Canadian shelves was the roll-on refill pack; every aluminum- and paraben-free stick had been scooped up.
“It was popular in the U.S., but in Canada it was flying off the shelves,” Body Shop communications director Shelley Simmons told the Straight in a phone interview from New York. “Consumers are increasingly thinking about what they’re putting onto their skin, not just into their bodies.”
Interestingly, you won’t find information about the potential evils of mainstream antiperspirants in any Body Shop store. Simmons explained that “it’s not fair to scare consumers into buying our products.” Instead, she said, the company depends on existing knowledge to sell DeoDry.
Meanwhile, mainstream brands aren’t afraid of drawing attention to themselves. In what is perhaps the most successful Internet marketing campaign ever, highly stylized commercials featuring the Old Spice Guy are drawing millions of viewers. Secret’s tag line “Fearlessness. Apply daily” is selling women 11 new deodorant scents in sparkling packages. Tackling the alternative market head-on, Unilever, the conglomerate that makes Dove and Axe, has launched antiperspirantsinfo.com, a site aimed at dispelling deodorant safety “myths”.
In the war over our armpits, the alternative market has nothing approaching the ammunition—or presence—of the big contenders. At the Buy-Low Foods in Kingsgate Mall on October 10, the cosmetics aisle featured just one brand without aluminum, Nature’s Gate, which includes witch hazel and oak gall. Hardly a cornucopia of choice. Verdan, the Swiss company that mines natural crystal deodorant, issued a news release this year stating that the natural cosmetics and personal-care market—which includes deodorants—grew by about 12 percent in 2009. But natural cosmetics still make up less than 15 percent of the U.S. market.
Here’s one possible explanation. Paul’s immediate switch to an alternative brand was unusual; 90 percent of Canadians won’t think beyond the short term. That’s according to John Peloza, an assistant business professor at SFU who researches public-policy issues in marketing communications.
“They’ll think, ”˜I’ll get Alzheimer’s 20 years from now anyway, so I’ll have a good time till then,’ ” he told the Straight in a phone interview. “This [mindset] makes marketers who sell natural products pull out their hair. It’s very difficult to get people over that hump.”
Most consumers, he said, don’t research potential health hazards on their own. They depend on scientists, government, and the media to do it for them. And a nebulous, debatable danger, such as the aluminum in antiperspirant, won’t inspire panic in most people. BPA was an exception, he believes, because it affected babies rather than adults who make their own decisions.
“There’s this consumer fatigue too, that everything’s bad for you,” he said. “Sound the Homer Simpson ”˜Everything is okay’ alarm.”
Do we even need the stuff? The premise of antiperspirant is that your body is doing something gross and a product will cover up the problem. Yet healthy people shouldn’t require it, according to Laina Ho, the academic director of the International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine of Vancouver. This is typical western medicine: treat the symptom and not the cause, she said.
“Perspiration is the body’s way of trying to get rid of heat and toxins,” Ho told the Straight in a phone interview. If someone came to her with a sweat problem, she said, she would assess him or her for the cause of the excess sweat. Then she would attempt to rebalance their body using acupuncture or herbs.
“These products will always have a market because most people don’t want to take the time to heal themselves,” she said.
Beyond the health issues of body odour, there are social issues—though the owner of Vancouver’s ICU Image Consulting thinks that they’re not as important as most people believe. Of the hundreds of people Katherine Lazaruk has helped polish, just two have had a real problem with smell. One guy in his late 20s, she recalled, was not clean—and he didn’t know it. Lazaruk showed him the light, but she didn’t push antiperspirant.
“I personally feel it’s okay to smell a little if you’re taking care of your health,” she told the Straight in a phone interview, mentioning that North Americans are obsessed with eliminating all odour. “People are really concerned about how they smell, but 70 percent of the time, it’s just a perception thing. If you are clean, if I have to get within six inches to smell you, it’s probably not a problem.”
Most of her clients are aware of the potential dangers posed by antiperspirants; however, she noted, they still choose to use them. She likens it to women choosing to wear shoes that are bad for their feet and posture but that they believe are good for their attractiveness. When it comes to appearance, Lazaruk said, style trumps safety for most people most of the time.
Lazaruk and Paul aren’t alone in their distaste for antiperspirant. More than 30 years ago, Festival Cinemas president Leonard Schein stopped smearing mainstream products on his pits. As the chair of the B.C. and Yukon chapter of the Canadian Cancer Society, he chooses aluminum-free deodorants.
“I believe in the precautionary principle,” he told the Straight in a phone interview. “If there’s an alternative to something that might cause cancer, I use it.”
That said, on its website the Canadian Cancer Society urges people to shrug off deodorant scaremongering. “There is no scientific evidence that antiperspirants or deodorants cause, or even increase, a man’s or woman’s risk of breast cancer,” the page on antiperspirants reads. Later, it says: “The Canadian Cancer Society will monitor research about this link and update our health information if appropriate.”
So we’re back to the beginning. Science has no undisputed evidence on antiperspirant safety. Some citizens grab onto the precautionary principle and use alternative sticks. Most don’t.
You’d have thought that the media brouhaha and general panic over BPA would have shaken more Canadians from their toxic-warnings fatigue. But according to Peloza, consumers are still pretty docile.
“This is overwhelming to most people,” he said. “It’s fascinating how consumers don’t take care of themselves.”