Take a stroll down the personal-care aisle of any drugstore, and you'll see quite a few options to keep you dry. Powder-scented, solid or gel, antiperspirants are in high demand in the summer. But in the past year, some new members joined the antiwetness club--"clinical strength" products that promise to keep you dry for not just a few hours but up to a whopping 24. Almost 10% of the market is now devoted to the strongest antiperspirants available without a prescription. Which makes you wonder: Do we sweat that much? And if we do, is it such a bad thing? "We have created a sense in modern society about hygiene that goes beyond being human," says Mehmet Oz, Oprah's doctor in residence, who doesn't use an antiperspirant because of the chemicals in it. "We all smell, and we all sweat. We're supposed to."
But we don't want to. That's why Americans spend over $2 billion a year on antiperspirants and deodorants. Despite that investment, 25% to 30% of people in a national survey feel the products they use could do more to control sweat. Enter Unilever's new clinical-strength versions of Dove and Degree. Ditto for Procter & Gamble's Secret, Old Spice and Gillette. Says P&G spokesman Jay Gooch: "At the end of the day, we want to make sure we don't stink."
Not stinking is one thing, but how healthy is it to block a normal body process? Some consumers are raising concerns about whether the chemicals in antiperspirants could have adverse effects--and even contribute to problems like Alzheimer's disease or cancer. The reality is that with the exception of the 2% of Americans who suffer from hyperhidrosis, a condition in which abnormally active sweat glands are treated with prescription-strength products, most of us could probably do without the extra protection offered by clinical-strength varieties, say doctors. Here's a guide to the health issues:
How do antiperspirants work?
The secret of Secret, and its cousins, lies in its active ingredient, aluminum. Aluminum salts in antiperspirants plug the sweat ducts dotting your underarm and essentially block much of the perspiration from escaping. The Food and Drug Administration regulates how much and what kind of aluminum compounds can be used in antiperspirants. As more brands reach the limit for over-the-counter products--which has not changed in many years--part of what makes today's clinical-strength iteration more effective is how it is used. "The best time to apply it is at night," says Dr. Dee Anna Glaser, a professor of dermatology at Missouri's St. Louis University. "If you're sweating too much, it can't form the plug."
Can they cause Alzheimer's?
Worries about aluminum emerged in the late 1980s, when researchers found in an animal study that the metal's compounds could be inhaled and potentially reach the brain. But additional studies failed to prove that the agents could breach the blood-brain barrier, and so far there is no evidence that exposure to aluminum increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's. Any aluminum that can be absorbed through the skin, says Bill Soller, who heads the Center for Consumer Self Care at the University of California, San Francisco, is minimal and probably safe. We ingest far more aluminum with our food, water and medications. "For the average person with healthy kidneys, using antiperspirants with aluminum does not represent a safety issue," he says.
What about cancer?
It's not just the aluminum that has caused alarm. Concerns about the potential link between antiperspirants and breast cancer bubbled up several years ago, buoyed by a study showing that breast-tumor cells taken from biopsies in women contained parabens, commonly used preservatives that can mimic the hormone estrogen. Another study found that among women with breast cancer, those who shaved their underarms frequently, then applied antiperspirant or deodorant, tended to develop the cancer at an earlier age. But, says Dr. Therese Bevers of Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center, "all these studies are fraught with biases, so you have to interpret them cautiously. There is not enough evidence to even lay out cautions at this point." Still, neither Unilever nor P&G uses parabens in its antiperspirants any longer. That's good news for the bulk of us, for whom antiperspirants are more about confidence than anything else. So, at least for now, it seems safe to roll on.