Ask SciMoms: At what age is it safe to use deodorants?

Face it. Sometimes, kids literally stink.  But I always figured elementary-aged kids don’t need deodorant until they hit middle school or later. My sister-in-law informed me otherwise — her little ones do use deodorant. That led her to wonder, when it comes to body odor in children, is there a reason they shouldn’t use deodorant? I decided to investigate: is deodorant safe for kids? At what age can kids safely use deodorants?

What are antiperspirants and deodorants?

Despite popular belief, sweat itself doesn’t smell. What creates body odor is the breakdown of sweat by various bacteria. There are two ways to reduce body odor — by eliminating or reducing the bacteria in sweat or reducing the amount of sweat produced. There are two different products on the market that tackle body odor: antiperspirants and deodorants.

Antiperspirants are substances that prevent sweating. Deodorants reduce microbes that cause odors. Many antiperspirants and deodorants also have masking scents. Due to the difference in their function, deodorants are regulated as cosmetics in the United States, while antiperspirants are regulated as over-the-counter drugs (similar to sunscreen). Some countries, including Canada, regulate antiperspirants as cosmetics.

The active ingredients in antiperspirants are aluminum salts. When an individual starts sweating, the salt dissolves and blocks the sweat gland duct. This stops or decreases the amount of sweat that is secreted. In contrast, deodorants have substances which prevent microbial growth, including alcohols and salts.

Are antiperspirants and deodorants safe?

Rumors have been circulating for decades surrounding the safety of antiperspirants. In fact, I remember that one of the very first “chain e-mails” I received was about an alleged link between antiperspirants and breast cancer. Concerns about antiperspirants focus on several points including aluminum in formulation, proximity to breast tissue, and presence of parabens.

To date, no evidence of harm exists in antiperspirants or deodorants, as outlined below:

  • Safety of Aluminum in antiperspirants
    • The American Cancer Society highlights that the amount of aluminum absorbed from antiperspirants is extremely low (0.012%). We experience much greater exposure from our diet and from the environment. 
    • The National Cancer Institute stresses that there is no evidence suggesting that aluminum increases breast cancer risk. 
    • The government of Canada has reviewed the safety of aluminum salts, concluding that exposure is not high enough to constitute a risk among the general population, but individuals who have industrial exposure should follow safety warnings.
    • The Alzheimer’s Association, The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, and the Alzheimer’s Society of UK, all highlight that there is no strong evidence for an association between Alzheimer’s and aluminum. Early animal models suggested that extremely high doses of aluminum might contribute to the characteristic traits seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. However, the dose that these animals were exposed to far exceeded anything we’d experience through dietary and environmental exposures, including antiperspirants.
  • Safety of parabens in antiperspirants
    • The American Cancer Society highlights that although some studies have shown parabens have weak estrogen-like properties, “the estrogens that are made in the body are hundreds to many thousands of times stronger. So, natural estrogens (or those taken as hormone replacement) are much more likely to play a role in breast cancer development.”
    • The National Cancer Institute states that most major brands of antiperspirants and deodorants in the US do not currently have parabens in their formulations.

Is natural deodorant better for my kid?

There are many deodorants and antiperspirants on the market today that are branded as “all-natural.” 

In the case of antiperspirants, these products as regulated by the FDA all contain aluminum in some form. Consequently, they’re not technically “natural.” But because “natural” isn’t a regulated term for consumer products anyway, manufacturers may add it to labels to appeal to consumers. Also, some natural deodorants have moisture-absorbing ingredients that dry sweat to some degree. So they’re kind of like an antiperspirant, but aren’t technically antiperspirants because they don’t prevent sweating, and aren’t regulated by the FDA.

As for deodorant, there is no evidence suggesting that natural deodorant is safer or better for kids, or anyone else. They are still regulated and tested the same way traditional deodorants are, and typically contain natural ingredients that absorb moisture like cornstarch, prevent bacteria from growing like mineral salt crystals, or smell nice, like lavender oil. i-. Although cosmetics with familiar formulations and ingredient lists might seem safer, there’s no evidence this necessarily translates to safety or decreased risk. 

At what age can my kid use deodorant and antiperspirants?

Surprisingly, there are no age recommendations for deodorant or antiperspirants for kids. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not have any recommendations for age, or any particular brands. Yet many deodorants are geared for kids. In looking through these lists of products, many are labeled as “paraben-free” or “aluminum-free.” But since all deodorants are aluminum-free (aluminum salts are only in antiperspirants) and most brands are paraben-free, these labels are mostly redundant marketing.

Talking to kids about hygiene 

Talking about cleanliness is an ongoing conversation (and sometimes, battle). The American Academy of Dermatology offers guidelines on the frequency of bathing, and it basically equates to “take a bath when you’re dirty.” By the time kids are pre-teens or teens, they should be taking baths or showers every day. 

A necessary aspect of this conversation with our children is to highlight that many forms of bullying target individuals who may seem to have poor hygiene. In addition, American and Canadian perspectives on body odor and sweat are not shared globally. It is important for our children to understand that the deodorant and antiperspirant market is part of the beauty industry, that sets impossible standards and idealizes control.

SciMoms feel that it is important to teach our children that daily showers and odor-controlling cosmetics are not accessible to all families, that body odor controlling substances are not commonly used in many countries around the world, and that some individuals have medical issues that cause excessive sweating.

Concluding Thoughts

Basic hygiene is obviously the best line of defense against body odor. But like millions of other kids, my son has sensitive skin and his pediatrician doesn’t recommend daily showers. New detergents, soaps, and shampoos have to be carefully tested in my household. 

I feel comfortable about antiperspirant and deodorant safety. But my plan is to take an incremental approach. I’ll start by trying to find a deodorant brand and formulation that works for his skin. Although he could use an antiperspirant, he doesn’t need to. I don’t think it makes sense to expose him to any unnecessary substances, particularly since his skin is sensitive. Perhaps when he’s a teen, we can evaluate and upgrade to antiperspirants.