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Of all the toxic ingredients in personal care products, aluminum is a misunderstood and controversial substance. Some claim it is safe, while other sources report that baking powder can be harmful, even in tiny amounts. So what is the real story?
Note: This is a long and very science-heavy post. Aluminum is a controversial substance, and the science is inconclusive, so I tend to avoid it whenever possible. If you’re not interested in the scientific studies surrounding it, skip to the bottom to learn some practical tips on how you can avoid it.
- 1 What Is Aluminum?
- 2 Symptoms of Toxicity
- 3 Diseases of Toxicity
- 4 Other Possible Health Effects
- 5 Items to Avoid
- 6 Testing and Regulation
- 7 So, Is Aluminum Safe?
What Is Aluminum?
Aluminum is a metal we are all familiar with and a common substance in our daily lives (aluminum foil is one of the most used kitchen items). We find it in household items, vaccines, medications, color pigments, paints, explosives, propellants, and fuel additives. Household materials and products like ceramics, paper, light bulbs, glass, and heat-resistant fibers use oxides.
In food, anti-caking agents, coloring agents, emulsifiers, baking powder (but NOT baking soda), and sometimes soy-based infant formula use its compounds.
It is important to note that while it is naturally occurring, the body has no need for it (unlike vitamins, minerals, and trace minerals). On the flip side, it may have some negative side effects. Let’s dig deeper.
In the Environment
Aluminum comprises 8% of the Earth’s crust, making it the most plentiful metal found on the Earth’s surface.
Because it is a very reactive element, you won’t find it as a free metal in nature. Instead, it is always bound to other elements such as fluorine, silicon, and oxygen. For example, soils, rocks, clays, and minerals like sapphires, rubies, and turquoise bind aluminum with other elements. It can also bind to particles in the air, dissolve in freshwater, and some plants can take it up via the soil.
Human activity increases the concentration of aluminum in our environment. Acid rain can mobilize it from the soil into water, and various industries release its compounds into our air. Nearby mines or industries which process and produce aluminum metal, alloys, and compounds can cause high environmental concentrations of aluminum. Coal power plants and incinerates can also release small amounts of aluminum into the environment.
The average adult in the US ingests about 7-9 mg per day via their food. Whole foods like meat, vegetables, and fruits may naturally contain small amounts of this metal since it is a naturally occurring element in the soil. Processed foods may add other aluminum compounds in baking powder, anti-caking agents, and coloring agents.
Regular inhalation and dermal absorption expose humans. However, only very small amounts of what we ingest, inhale, or absorb through the skin will enter the bloodstream.
Studies estimate that the body absorbs (bioavailable) 0.1% to 0.3% of aluminum from the diet and 0.3% via water. Bioavailability increases when ingested with something acidic (like tomato products cooked in an aluminum pan). If not eliminated via the kidneys, it will store in the bones, lungs, muscle, liver, and brain.
This is where aluminum gets controversial. While experts acknowledge the toxicity of it, they debate about what levels are considered safe. Most often, exposure from one’s occupational or living environment leads to acute toxicity. Additionally, others undergoing certain medical treatments are at risk.
After contaminated workplaces, living environments, and medical treatments, the next most common source of over-exposure is from chronic use of aluminum-containing antacids, buffered aspirin, contaminated food, and drinking water. Many health experts counter that the true dangers accumulate over a more extended time and that many studies don’t follow up long enough to reveal long-term effects.
Lifestyle Factors Which Can Lead to Aluminum Overexposure
- Working in an environment with aluminum dust
- Living in high aluminum areas (such as near aluminum mines and processing plants, hazardous waste sites, or where it is naturally high in the soil)
- Drinking or ingesting substances that contain it (i.e., chronic antacid use)
Health Conditions Which Can Increase Toxicity
Some health conditions make certain individuals more susceptible to aluminum toxicity. Long-term dialysis exposes those with reduced kidney function to the metal through the dialysate fluid or other medical sources.
However, the incidence of this has declined in recent years with the use of uncontaminated fluid. Even without the contamination from dialysis, since more than 95% of aluminum is eliminated by the kidney, people with poor kidney function are more likely to store it in their bodies.
Symptoms of Toxicity
Acute exposure can result in symptoms like:
- muscle weakness
- bone pain, bone deformities, and fractures
- speech problems
- slow growth in children
Diseases of Toxicity
Though medicine often downplays the danger of low-dose aluminum exposure, there is evidence about the dangers of long-term exposure. Known long-term effects of consistent exposure include:
1. Bone Diseases
A 2007 study found that “sustained exposure to high levels of aluminum can cause bone abnormalities.” The body deposits the metal at sites of new bone growth.
If the body does not properly eliminate aluminum by the kidneys or bile, the body stores 60% of it in bone tissue. Animals exposed to aluminum have increased bone weakness and brittleness. Deficiencies in calcium or magnesium can exacerbate these effects.
Toxicity also leads to the suppression of parathyroid hormone, which regulates calcium homeostasis. In dialysis patients, high levels of serum aluminum (greater than 30 mg/L) have been associated with osteomalacia, softening of the bones, and other related disorders.
2. Nervous System Problems
These problems manifest as difficulty carrying out voluntary and involuntary actions and significantly correlate to occupational exposure. So-called “neuropsychiatric symptoms” include loss of coordination, memory loss, and problems with balance.
3. Brain Diseases and Disorders
Research done on animals, and dialysis patients, make it clear that high levels of aluminum in the Central Nervous System (CNS) can lead to neurotoxicity. In dialysis patients, concentrations greater than 80 mg/L plasma aluminum have been associated with encephalopathy (any brain disease that alters brain function or structure). Even with this data, it has been challenging to assess what concentration of serum aluminum correlates with brain damage.
4. Respiratory Problems
People who breathe in large amounts of aluminum dust may develop respiratory problems, such as coughing or abnormal chest x-rays. Most people who develop respiratory illnesses from aluminum do so because their workplaces have high amounts of this dust.
In aluminum industry employees, the most well-researched respiratory effect is called Potroom Asthma. The common symptoms of this disorder are wheezing, dyspnea (labored breathing), and impaired lung function.
Other changes after occupational exposure are: “alveolar proteinosis and wall thickening, diffuse pulmonary fibrosis, and interstitial emphysema,” along with some nodule formation. Exposure may also contribute to Shaver’s disease, a pulmonary fibrosis seen in workers exposed to fine aluminum powders.
5. Impaired Iron Absorption
Aluminum may negatively affect hematopoiesis, the body’s process of creating new red blood cells, especially in persons with an underlying iron deficiency. Aluminum also interferes with the metabolism of other metals, especially an increased excretion of phosphorus.
Other Possible Health Effects
These are the areas where aluminum exposure gets controversial, and there is quite a bit of evidence supporting its possible link to these conditions, though more research is needed.
You may have heard that you should avoid aluminum because it can cause Alzheimer’s Disease. However, the research has come to mixed conclusions.
Before I get into the research results, it’s crucial to understand how this disease affects the brain.
Alzheimer’s disease, or AD, disrupts critical metabolic processes to keep healthy neurons (brain cells). These disruptions cause neurons in the brain to stop working properly, lose connections with other cells, and then die.
The death of brain cells is what causes the hallmark symptoms of this terrible disease: memory loss, personality changes, and the inability to carry out daily tasks. While there is still a lot to be understood about Alzheimer’s Disease, a 2017 review of research identifies two abnormal structures in the brains of those with AD: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.
Amyloid plaques, first described by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906, consist mainly of insoluble deposits of a toxic protein-peptide called beta-amyloid in the synapses, or spaces between neurons. There is still a lot to be learned about these plaques. It is still unknown whether they directly cause the disease or are a symptom of its process.
Neurofibrillary tangles are collections of abnormally twisted protein strands found inside nerve cells. The tangles damage the ability of the neurons to communicate with one another. The next major feature of AD is the loss of connections between neurons. The inhibition of intercellular communication can damage the brain cells and cause them to die off.
As neurons die, the affected regions begin to atrophy, and the brain starts to shrink, eventually resulting in death.
Aluminum’s Role in Alzheimer’s
Some studies show that exposure to high levels of the metal correlates with increased rates of Alzheimer’s disease, while others show no correlation. The same 2007 study above points out that multiple studies have investigated exposure from drinking water. Yet, the data is difficult to interpret because of the variety of study designs and their range of quality.
Still, the majority of epidemiological studies have reported a positive association between aluminum levels in drinking water and the risk of AD. This means that when concentrations rose, so did the number of cases of Alzheimer’s.
Research conducted on brain samples reports that the aluminum concentration was higher in the overall brain samples, neurofibrillary tangles, and plaques from subjects with Alzheimer’s disease than the controls.
On the other hand, aluminum could have merely an indirect role in causing AD. It may amplify conditions and promote mechanisms that negatively affect “synergistically” worsening cognitive abilities in Alzheimer’s patients.
Direct injection of aluminum increases markers of oxidative stress in animal studies. In animal studies, it seems that it may affect cholesterol levels, which may serve as a potential modulator of Alzheimer-type amyloid formation.
It could increase the aggregation of molecules known to form lesions in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. A 2002 study noted that mice fed diets high in aluminum showed increased levels of amyloid. There is also evidence that it promotes the aggregation of B amyloid peptide in mice.
A 1991 study established that exposure to the metal causes the formation of filamentous structures containing cytoplasmic neurofilament protein, promoting the formation of neurofilibary tangles. However, in several studies rats and mice exposed to very high levels of aluminum did not show “profound” cognitive impairment.
In short, this is one area that certainly needs more research. Since the body doesn’t have a physiological need for this metal and there may be a link to some health conditions, it may be worth avoiding until science learns more.
Here is more info on how to detox heavy metals from the body.
The evidence is unclear about the effect of aluminum on reproduction, though some animal studies have pointed to an effect on offspring.
When administered orally, it did not seem to affect reproductive capacity in either males or females. Exposure during gestation didn’t affect maternal health or the development of the fetuses and neonates.
However, large amounts delay unborn and developing animals’ skeletal and neurological development. The same study above conducted in mice showed neurobehavioral abnormalities in offspring whose mothers were given aluminum during gestation and lactation.
The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine’s Public Statement on Aluminum points out that it is in breast milk. They claim only a small amount will enter the infant’s body via breastfeeding—typical concentrations in human breast milk range from 0.0092 to 0.049 mg/L. It’s also in soy-based infant formula (0.46–0.93 mg/L) and milk-based infant formula (0.058–0.15 mg/L).
This is another controversial topic when it comes to aluminum exposure.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have not evaluated the carcinogenic potential in humans. While it has not conclusively caused cancer in animal studies, some human studies have suggested a possible link between aluminum and breast cancer.
In 1984, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified aluminum as carcinogenic.
A 2012 study suggests that aluminum-based antiperspirants may increase breast cancer risk. Because most breast cancers develop where we apply deodorant—in the upper outer part of the breast, they hypothesize that chemicals in antiperspirants, like aluminum, absorb through the skin, especially when shaving nicks the skin. Those chemicals may then interact with DNA, lead to cancerous changes in cells, or interfere with the action of the female hormone estrogen, which we know influences the growth of breast cancer cells.
However, we do not fully understand the direct action of aluminum and its role in breast cancer. A 2009 study observed that aluminum and other endocrine disruptors that keep the body from perspiring might have other negative health consequences because sweating is a natural process of elimination for the body.
In 2012, this study demonstrated that aluminum creates oxidative stress in the body, which may also increase rates of cancers, and another 2012 study showed it specifically in human mammary cells. A 2001 study demonstrated the same negative oxidative effect in skin cells. These studies don’t prove that it is a cause of cancer but certainly suggest that it is problematic enough to warrant further research and concern.
Aluminum can also bio-accumulate, especially in the brain. An additional 2012 study shows that it can substitute for minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron, leading to deficiencies of these minerals.
Items to Avoid
Again, aluminum is a controversial substance. I wish we could know its effects for sure on long-term human toxicity. However, we do know that it isn’t necessary for the body, and avoiding it won’t cause any harm. So it is a substance that I personally avoid as much as possible.
If you are concerned and want to avoid aluminum exposure, watch out for these consumer products:
Antacids contain 300-600 mg aluminum hydroxide, translating to 104-208 mg of aluminum per tablet, capsule, or 5mL liquid dose. While the digestive tracts may only absorb a little of it, it may be a concern for those already experiencing high exposures to the metal or those wishing to avoid it altogether.
If a person must take antacids, it is helpful to wait before eating anything sour or acidic, such as citrus and tomatoes. Acids make it easier to absorb the aluminum found in antacids. Those who take antacids daily may be experiencing low stomach acid instead of high stomach acid.
One tablet of buffered aspirin may contain 10-20 mg of aluminum.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) warns that baking powders often utilize sodium aluminum phosphate or sodium aluminum phosphate as a leavening agent.
To avoid this, you can make your own using baking soda, arrowroot, and cream of tartar.
It is also important to note that baking soda does NOT contain aluminum, though there is confusion about this on the internet. “Aluminum Free” is a marketing term on baking soda packaging. However, manufacturers acknowledge that baking soda does not contain this metal and is just a marketing ploy.
Aluminum powder is used as a colorant in many cosmetics but mainly in nail polish, eye shadow, eyeliner, and lip gloss. The EWG notes that aluminum goes under the names listed in the ingredients as aluminum, aluminum flake, LB Pigment 5, Pigment Metal 1, A 00, A 95, A 995, A 999, AA 1099, or AA 1199.
Antiperspirants use aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex glycine. The EWG warns that Canada restricts its use. As a simple natural alternative, make homemade deodorant with this recipe. (Note: Even “natural” deodorants like crystal deodorants can contain aluminum, but you can combat this with an armpit detox.)
Many sunscreens and makeup foundations with sunscreen use aluminum hydroxide as an opacifying agent, skin protectant, and cosmetic colorant. While the EWG gives this chemical its lowest hazard score, Canada classifies it as “expected to be toxic or harmful.” If you’re concerned, see my recommended sunscreen list or use physical measures like hats and shirts to avoid burning.
Many types of kitchen products and cookware use aluminum, especially antiques. I make sure to use safe cookware that doesn’t contain Teflon or aluminum. This post lists my favorite cookware, but you should know I recommend Xtrema ceramic cookware the most.
Aluminum is also present in many other kitchen products like foil, canned goods, water bottles, drink pouches, and tin storage dishes. Research shows that it transfers into food, especially when foods are heated in foil or containers or come into contact with it while hot. Some sources claim that foil is safe for storing cold foods, but I still prefer to avoid it.
Thankfully there are easy substitutes:
Testing and Regulation
The best way to predict the “aluminum body burden” is to test bone tissue. However, since that is invasive, a blood test can also determine long-term exposure. A urine test assesses only recent exposure. Another way to test is to analyze a hair sample, but its value in overall toxicity needs future study.
Aluminum is currently regulated in food, water, and consumer products, though not as tightly in the US as many other countries.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a “Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level” or SMCL of 0.05-0.2 mg/L for aluminum in drinking water. However, this concentration is based on taste, smell, and color, not on if the level will affect the health of humans or animals.
The FDA has determined that the aluminum in food additives and medicinals (aspirin and antacids) are “generally safe.” It has, however, set a limit for bottled water of 0.2mg/L.
OSHA has set a legal limit for aluminum in dust (averaged over an 8-hour workday) for 15 mg/m3 (milligram per cubic meter) of total dust.
If you live near any high aluminum areas, I’d recommend getting an AirDoctor Air Filter that can help clean your air. (Use this link to get 50% off for a limited time!)
So, Is Aluminum Safe?
Based on this research, I consider aluminum to be enough of a concern to avoid when possible. It’s another reason why I am glad I eat unprocessed whole foods and stick to all-natural beauty products. Some sources argue it is fine, but there is also a body of evidence suggesting it may not be.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Pfleghaar, D.O., FACEP, ABOIM. Dr. Jennifer is a double board-certified physician and is now working in Emergency Medicine and has an office in Ohio practicing Integrative Medicine. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Since we still need more research to determine how aluminum affects brain health, I prefer to avoid it. What do you think?
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). ToxFAQs™ – letter a. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Prevention.
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine. (n.d.). Public health statement for aluminum.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2017). What happens to the brain in alzheimer’s disease? National Institute on Aging.
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- Sappino, A. P., et al. (2012). Aluminium chloride promotes anchorage-independent growth in human mammary epithelial cells. Journal of applied toxicology: JAT, 32(3), 233–243.
- McGrath K. G. (2009). Apocrine sweat gland obstruction by antiperspirants allowing transdermal absorption of cutaneous generated hormones and pheromones as a link to the observed incidence rates of breast and prostate cancer in the 20th century. Medical hypotheses, 72(6), 665–674.
- Anane, R., & Creppy, E. E. (2001). Lipid peroxidation as pathway of aluminium cytotoxicity in human skin fibroblast cultures: prevention by superoxide dismutase+catalase and vitamins E and C. Human & experimental toxicology, 20(9), 477–481.
- Walton J. R. (2012). Aluminum disruption of calcium homeostasis and signal transduction resembles change that occurs in aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 29(2), 255–273.