RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—There are few things more worrisome to an insecure teenager than how he or she smells. So it shouldn't be very surprising that new deodorant body spray introductions have increased 43 percent this year over last, according to market researcher Mintel. It also shouldn't come as a surprise that marketers are very savvy about marketing these products to teenagers, who have a healthy amount of disposable income and haven't yet learned the art of moderation. Yet, while marketers are counting their dollars, adults are holding their noses.
"When my oldest son used it, I could smell it all day long," says Carmen Staicer, a mother of six from Virginia. "I could smell it in the car after I drove him to school." The "it" she's referring to is Axe Body Spray, the best-selling deodorant spray on the market and the bane of households—and schools—nationwide. When she worked in a local school cafeteria, Staicer says, "Every person who worked there made mention of how smelly Axe was, and how overpowering it was to have a line of 30 to 45 hot, sweaty boys come from PE class with a fresh application of Axe." It doesn't help that teenage boys have biology working against them: Boys reportedly have noses that are 200 to 1,000 times less sensitive than a woman's, plus oily skin, a hallmark of teenage years, holds scents much longer than dry skin.
THE DETAILS: Whether a teenager is addicted to Axe or any of the dozens of other deodorant sprays on the market, getting him to back away from the spray isn't a bad idea. These fragranced body sprays contain synthetic fragrances that are in reality chemical cocktails made up of hundreds of chemicals, such as hormone-disrupting phthalates and synthetic musks, and the Environmental Working Group's (EWG's) Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database consistently rates Axe, Old Spice, and other commercial body sprays as moderate or high hazards. A recent analysis of popular perfumes, including Axe, Old Spice, and fragrances from popular chain stores, found that many contained chemicals linked to sperm damage. "Phthalates are anti-androgenic, or anti-testosterone," says Maida Galvez, MD, MPH, assistant professor in the department of community and preventive medicine and the department of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, referring to the fact that the chemicals lower the body's testosterone levels and boost estrogen levels. And, she notes, research has found that teenagers have higher phthalate levels in their bodies than adults do.
It's easy to imagine that these chemicals could have unknown long-term effects on the teens that use them, considering that they're in the midst of the hormonal upheaval that is puberty. A 2009 study from EWG found that teenagers may be particularly susceptible to hormone-disrupting chemicals like phthalates because of the way the chemicals influence the rapidly developing reproductive system. Animal studies have found that male rats exposed to phthalates during puberty had more testicular problems because of the way they absorbed and metabolized the chemicals. And of course girls—who are the ones that desire nice-smelling boys most of all (if you believe the advertisements for these products)—are undergoing changes in their mammary glands, and exposures to hormone-disrupting chemicals during this phase of their lives could trigger biological changes that may result in breast cancer later in life, according to a recent report from the Breast Cancer Fund.
WHAT IT MEANS: Staicer's sons have opted to put down the body sprays for the sake of their mom and their asthmatic siblings. "They know I hate it," she says. But if you think getting your teenage boys to do the same might be a Herculean feat, take heart, says Judy Shils, founder and executive director of Teens Turning Green, a California-based advocacy group that was started by teenagers to educate other teenagers about the hazards of chemicals in personal-care products. "Boys typically roll their eyes when you talk to them about chemical dangers in personal-care products," Shils says, "but they do start caring once they start hearing from their girlfriends about how overpowering the scents can be."