Detailed Alum Research

1/ When I finally began landing on the French websites I found the cause of Mr Everybody’s itchy and sore armpits. Ammonium alum is  a synthetic alum typically manufactured from industrial waste from nylon and aluminium factories. These factories sell their waste aluminium sulphate and this is typically combined with sulphuric acid to make ammonium alum. Both of these ingredients, industrial by-products may contain other industrial contaminants. Ammonium alum does not occur naturally. It is also not beyond the whit of chemists to make synthetic potassium alum as well, indeed they do.

This google satellite image shows the edge of the alum formation and the site from where our alum is collected. Thank you google!

This google satellite image shows the edge of the alum formation and the site from where our alum is collected. Thank you google!

So traceability is key – only purchase from reputable and knowledgeable suppliers who specialize in the raw products of nature and who tell you about the origin of their products. It turns out that Mr Everybody’s experience was not unique. Many of our customers have reported almost identical experiences from using deodorants containing artificial alums. Luckily we had never thought of selling deodorant up to this point. Volcanic potassium alum is completely natural and very effective and this is the deodorant we have used subsequently.

2/Antiperspirants and deodorants work in totally different ways and many of the current debates fail to make a clear distinction between them or to fully distinguish between natural and artificial alums. Deodorants work on the outside of the skin forming an invisible anti-microbial layer on the outside of the skin – no bacteria – almost undetectable odour; Antiperspirants are designed so that the aluminium ions (Al3+) penetrate into the sweat glands, block them and reduce the ability to sweat. Using a deodorant you will still sweat but because there is little or no odour, people perceive that they sweat less. Sweat isn’t just too cool us down, but it is a way of the body to excrete water and fat soluble toxins. Sweat also carries pheromones and other hormones which communicate our true feelings and enable us to tune into the subtle feelings of others. It is nature’s own perfume!

3/ Looking for the fictional ammonium alum mines in cyberspace made us aware of natural sources of volcanic alum in the real world. Natural alum forms around volcanic vents and is usually described as potash alum or potassium alum. Naturally occurring potassium alum has a long history of use going back to more than three thousand years in Egypt and its use is recorded all over the Ancient World – from 8th century BC Babylon and among the Greeks and Romans. The Chinese, neighbouring India and the Aboriginal Australians all have their own sources of alum minerals. Natural alum used by all these cultures over thousands of years has not been associated with breast cancer and Alzheimers. Alum has many uses besides deodorising: It is a traditional textile dyers mordant – that is, it fixes fugitive vegetable dyes in wool, leather and wood; it is used for paper and parchment sizing, mixed with gelatine to improve the quality of the surface; salt dough recipes, tawing leather, for fireproofing and waterproofing textiles, clarifying water and even in food, medicines, vaccinations traditional aftershaves and other cosmetics. Some vaccinations are available in a low or no-aluminium form. Alzheimers and breast cancer diseases are considered to be modern Western diseases and we can generalise that natural alum is not the chief culprit.

4/ The names of natural and synthetic alum are often conflated by being known simply as alum but they are different. Besides reading the label, if you still have it, how can you tell the difference between natural and synthetic alum?

Synthetic Ammonium Alum or Potassium Alum Deodorant Moulded Crystal Volcanic Earth Grown Potassium Alum Deodorant Natural Crystal
Appearance Milky white to clear.

Preformed into smooth and regular shapes.

Often moulded in plastic tubes.

Milky white to clear sometimes with unusual features within the crystal.

Irregular shape, surface and weight.

Natural alum can not be sculpted into regular forms without creating much wastage. Some shaving blocks are machine cut and the prices reflect the wastage in this process.

Durability Can spontaneously crack and fracture before reaching the end of the tube.

Will fracture easily.

Can be used until it becomes impractically small (then save for shaving cuts etc.)
Will fracture if dropped.
Effectiveness OK to start with. Excellent feedback from new and long term users including athletes.

5/ Let’s get back to the core issue – the presence of aluminium in natural and synthetic deodorants and concerns about polluting the body with aluminium. How can we reduce our aluminium exposure? Aluminium is very abundant where it occurs, and in fact some 8-14% of the earth’s surface contains aluminium minerals. This means that aluminium is found naturally in our water, in the air of industrialised countries and it can be added in the form of various salts to our water, food and vaccinations. Many foods are packed or prepared in aluminium and aluminium cookware is still common – aluminium is lurking underneath many Teflon coated pans and cheap roasting pans are often of aluminium. It is in toothpastes, infant formula and it is found in high levels in tea and cows milk. Yes, that’s a bit below the belt for British tea lovers! It is commonly used for food packaging such as crisps, carbonated drinks, tomato paste, canned nuts and may line milk and juice containers. Aluminium is used in food packaging more than you think! The UK water providers use either aluminium sulphate or polyaluminium chloride to clarify our tap water. On the Anglia Water website, they claim that they add aluminium sulphate to the water to reduce turbity (cloudyness) and to reduce high aluminium levels in the water. Hmmm – I might need to dig around in the attic and retrieve my school chemistry books!

Normal environmental levels in the UK are: Air Average range: 0.005 to 0.18 µg/m3 (micrograms per squared meter) and 0.4 to 8.0 µg/m3 in urban and industrial areas; Concentrations in Sediment and Soil vary widely ranging from 7 to over 100 g/kg; Water levels are supposed to be 0.1 mg/L (milligrams per litre or one-thousandth) in surface water. Most of our aluminium intake is through food. An acceptable allowance is known as the tolerable weekly intake (TWI) – 1 mg aluminium/kg bw/week. [EFSA, May 2008] We must accept that environmental aluminium exposure is inevitable, but it is generally more concentrated in foods. In the UK the estimated adult intake of aluminium is about 6mg/day, though I would think that is a conservative estimate. In the article, Aluminium, the researcher J.L Greger, recorded that average American intake of aluminium in food and water was between 2mg/day and 25mg/day. In Holland daily intakes has been suggested to be as much as 33mg/day. [1993, 13:43-63] Compared to our total daily exposure, the added risk from using aluminium containing antiperspirant (not deodorant) is statistically insignificant. [Graves, 1999, Lindsay, J, 2002] The risks of using volcanic alum deodorant is reduced even further in comparison to our food intake.
An experiment with the antiperspirant ingredient aluminium chlorohydrate, by Flarend, Elmore et al. tested the absorption of aluminium chlorohydrate when applied under the arms. Humans, not animals, you will be glad to know, were used for this experiment. ‘Aluminium Chlorohydrate (ACH) an antiperspirant ingredient was then applied to a single underarm of two adult subjects with blood and urine samples being collected over 7 weeks. Tape-stripping and mild washings of the skin were also collected for the first 6 days. Results indicate that only 0.012% of the applied aluminium was absorbed through the skin. At this rate, about 4 μg (micrograms) or 0.004mg (milligrams) of aluminium is absorbed from a single use of ACH on both underarms. This is about 2.5% of the aluminium typically absorbed by the gut from food over the same time period. The study concluded that, a one-time use of ACH applied to the skin is not a significant contribution to the body burden of aluminium. [2001] It is a shame that the study was not taken a bit further with repeated applications. However, it is easy to appreciate that even with alum containing antiperspirants, (as opposed to surface deodorants) the exposure compared to general exposure is minimal.  I will include some tips below for reducing your aluminium exposure. People with kidney problems should be aware that they will find it more difficult to excrete aluminium and they should reduce their exposure, especially through foods.

6/ So how did aluminium get its bad name? Water UK (the organisation who overseas water management in the UK) issued the following statement in November 2006, which I have summarised. ‘In the 1970s, some patients receiving kidney dialysis, developed dialysis dementia due to aluminium in the water used to make up dialysis fluid.  A European regulation was introduced to limit the concentration of aluminium in water used to make up such fluids, to a maximum of 30 µg/l. This is rigorously adopted by the medical authorities in the UK, through appropriate pre-treatment of dialysis fluids. In addition water companies liaise closely with medical authorities to ensure that they are aware of all hospital or home dialysis units.

Subsequently it was suggested that aluminium in drinking water might be a factor in the development of other neurological diseases in the general population, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. This is a common form of senile and pre-senile dementia, for which there is presently no effective treatment. Aluminium was identified as being present in the characteristic lesions in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, along with other chemical elements. A number of epidemiological studies were carried out to examine the association between aluminium in drinking water and the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in the population. Some of these found weak associations between aluminium in drinking water and Alzheimer’s disease while others found no association. It is not possible to draw firm conclusions from any one study but there is an approximately even split between those finding positive associations and those finding no association. More recent studies have tended to show no association. The evidence for the role of environmental factors as primary causes of Alzheimer’s disease is much weaker than the evidence for a genetic role and is almost entirely circumstantial. The view of the Alzheimer’s Disease Society is that the findings so far do not convincingly demonstrate a causal relationship between aluminium and Alzheimer’s disease. This is supported by the conclusions from WHO. The World Health Organisation has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to justify the development of a health-related guideline for aluminium in drinking water.’ A Water UK briefing note, November 2006.

Other concerns about aluminium exposure were based on the deterioration in health due to the practise of American miners of inhaling powder aluminium metal at the beginning of their days work. They believed that it would prevent silicosis. The practise continued until the 1980s. Unfortunately these miners acquired cognitive damage. Both of these examples are very special situations in which people were exposed through a route that bypasses the normal barriers of alimentary or dermal absorption. When our kidneys and bowels are functioning normally are able to excrete high levels of aluminium [Greger and Baier, 1983].

7/ Many conventional deodorants contain a veritable cocktail of chemicals. Here is an overview of just a few of the common ones:

Parabens – used as anti-microbials. Parabens are present in breast cancer tumours.

Propylene glycol – a humectant added to cosmetics to keep the product moist, were developed originally as anti-freeze and de-icing solutions. They may cause kidney, liver, heart and nervous system damage as well as skin rashes.

Triclosan – used as an anti-bacterial can cause thyroid damage, birth defects and lowered immune system function. Triclosan bioaccumulates in fat cells and chemicals of this family are now found to pollute the entire planet. Its use can bring about bacterial and viral mutations which are drug resistant.

FD&C colours – an animal carcinogen and can cause skin allergies.

Quaternium 18 – the number one cause of contact dermatitis. Read the label!

Many of the really dangerous chemicals present in process cosmetics are not included on the label and the manufacturer may be unaware that contamination has entered the production chain. That is why we focus on the unprocessed or ‘raw’ products of nature. Also consider how a deodorant already containing a chemical cocktail will react with other traces of washing and shaving products left on the skin. Soap can be remarkably difficult to rinse completely from the skin. If you don’t recognize the basic ingredients look them up and find out whether they are safe. A volcanically formed alum crystal doesn’t actually need any other ingredients, just some water at the point of use.

8/ Natural volcanic alum forms very gradually under the earth surface around volcanic fumeroles. The size of the individual crystals in the matrix are much larger than quickly precipitated synthetic alums. The stratum corneum, the outside layer of the skin only allows the passage of molecules with molecular weights of 100-200. Natural potassium alum molecules have a molecular weight of 474.39gm. Potassium alum has a negative charge, the same charge as the skin and they electronically repelling each other preventing absorption through the skin. In theory potassium alum can not enter the stratum corneum, but in all fairness a really tiny amount of whatever you use on the skin could squeeze in through a hair follicle, sebaceous or sweat gland, but these easier points of entry only make up a fraction of the surface of the skin. You shouldn’t use deodorants at all unless you underarm skin is in good condition.

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