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There's definitely some misunderstanding when it comes to knowing the difference between antiperspirant and deodorant. Thanks to living on the same drugstore aisle, most people assume the two terms are synonyms. But in actuality, there are some key differences between deodorant vs antiperspirants. So ahead, we chatted with two board-certified dermatologists about the difference between antiperspirant and deodorant, along with whether or not each product is safe to use on a daily basis.
Meet the Expert
What Is Deodorant?
Break down the word and you’ll have the right idea. According to Green, deodorant is just that: a substance that’s applied to the body to prevent or mask body odor due to bacterial breakdown. In that sense, it deodorizes—hence the name. “The most common areas where deodorant can be applied are in the armpits, groin, feet,” Green adds.
To help paint a full picture, know this: Drunk Elephant Sweet Pitti Deodorant Cream ($16), Schmidt’s Naturals Sandalwood and Citrus Natural Deodorant ($8), and Native Blood Orange & Clove Deodorant ($12) are all deodorants. Notice a trend? These products are made with cleaner, more natural ingredients and serve only one purpose: to mask or deodorize body odor.
What Is Antiperspirant?
On the contrary, antiperspirants work a bit harder than deodorants by not only deodorizing body odor, but also reducing or stopping sweat altogether. Antiperspirant can also be understood by breaking down the word itself. "Anti" comes before "perspirant" and, in that way, the word implies the negation of perspiration. Chawlek confirms this, noting that antiperspirants reduce sweat. “They usually contain aluminum compounds that when absorbed temporarily block the sweat gland and reduce moisture,” she explains. The word deodorant has become somewhat of a blanket term, so most antiperspirants are often marketed as deodorants.
Again, to paint a full picture, understand that: Dove Advanced Care Cool Essentials Antiperspirant Deodorant ($9), Secret Outlast Invisible Solid Completely Clean Antiperspirant & Deodorant ($5), and Degree Ultra Clear Pure Clean Antiperspirant & Deodorant ($7) are all true antiperspirants (despite having deodorant in the name), meaning they’re made with aluminum and, in addition to deodorizing underarms, they prevent sweating too.
Now, what’s slightly more shocking is that brands that seem super clean can also be an antiperspirant. Take Tom’s of Maine, for example. The fan-favorite personal care brand is known for being more earthy, but their best-selling “deodorant” (Coconut Lavender Antiperspirant, $6) is actually an antiperspirant, meaning its laden with aluminum, albeit sustainably sourced.
Deodorant vs. Antiperspirant
While many people assume that deodorant and antiperspirants are interchangeable names for the same product, it’s important to understand the difference between the two body care offerings. According to Chwalek, the key difference between the two is that deodorants usually contain fragrance and work by decreasing the pH of the skin which reduces odor-producing bacteria; whereas antiperspirants typically contain aluminum compounds to physically stop or reduce sweating. For this reason, Green says that deodorants are best for those who are most concerned with odor, whereas antiperspirants are best for those worried about excess sweat. Despite having two different definitions (and sets of ingredients), deodorant is often used as a blanket term—so most antiperspirants are actually marketed as deodorants.
TL;DR: Deodorants mask or deodorize body odor, while antiperspirants contain aluminum to physically reduce or stop sweating. The word "deodorant" has become a blanket term, so most antiperspirants are marketed as deodorants (even though they're actually antiperspirants). If you see aluminum in the ingredients list, you have an antiperspirant.
Antiperspirant and Aluminum Safety Concerns
There's some controversy around the safety of applying aluminum-containing antiperspirants. According to the National Cancer Institute, several scientists are concerned about the link between antiperspirants and breast cancer given the product’s close proximity to the chest region. However, Chawlek points out that multiple studies have failed to prove this link, and that aluminum is widely considered to be a safe ingredient within the dermatology community.
“There is concern that aluminum in antiperspirants can be absorbed and affect estrogen receptors on breast cells (which might lead to cancer),” she explains. “However, only a small amount of aluminum is absorbed and several studies have failed to find a link between antiperspirant use and breast cancer.”
As Chwalek points out, a 2016 systematic review failed to demonstrate a link between breast cancer and antiperspirant use (but the authors noted they only identified two case-controlled studies conducted between 2002 and 2006). “One of these studies was a 2002 US study of 793 women with no breast cancer and 813 women with breast cancer which showed no increased risk of breast cancer in women using deodorants or antiperspirants,” she explains.
While antiperspirants’ direct link to breast cancer is largely unfounded, Chwalek does note that aluminum compounds have been shown to have estrogenic effects and have been noted to potentially cause DNA alterations. “More breast cancers occur in the lateral/outer quadrants which would correspond to possible application and absorption, however, another study pointed out that there is a greater density of breast tissue in this area which is why we see more cancers here,” she adds.
“In general, deodorants and antiperspirants are safe products for most people in good health to use,” Green says. With that in mind, however, she does point out that those with kidney issues should be wary. “Aluminum might be of greater concern if you are having kidney problems, especially if your kidney function is about 30 percent or less,” she says. “Excess aluminum is usually filtered out of your body by your kidneys and so, people with weakened kidney function can’t filter aluminum fast enough.
Moral of the story? More research is needed to firmly attest whether or not antiperspirants and aluminum can lead to such adverse effects. In the meantime, the ingredient is considered safe within the medical community, but with any concerns about your specific needs and risks, you should absolutely consult your physician.
Deodorants mask or reduce odor. Meanwhile, antiperspirants contain aluminum to physically stop sweating. If your main concern is odor, opt for deodorant; if your main concern is sweating, opt for antiperspirant. If you want to knock out two birds with one stone, choose a formula that’s both an antiperspirant and a deodorant (fun fact: Most popular underarm care products fall into this category). And while there's some controversy around links between aluminum-based underarm products and breast cancer, this link is unfounded, so the ingredient is generally deemed safe within the medical community.
That said, if you have an allergy or other health condition that could be affected by the ingredients in deodorant, Green says that it’s best to discuss this with your doctor.