Ever had a million dollar idea? A few years ago, my boyfriend was convinced he had struck imaginary gold with the idea of marrying a deodorant and hair removal product. "Think about it, you already rub something under your arms every morning; well this would eliminate the need for an extra step of shaving or waxing," he explained to me, and anyone else who would listen. I countered with the fact that you would need a pretty potent chemical to burn off underarm stubble. Would you really want that sitting on your skin all day? Nevertheless, my words of warning could not deter him. But before he had time to source a mad scientist or file a patent, Unilever announced the launch of a revolutionary hair-minimizing deodorant.

Dove Visibly Smooth Antiperspirant was Unilever's own million — make that billion — dollar new product concept. After three years of research and development, Unilever unveiled its prized "pro-epil complex" in January 2009. This mysterious complex, researchers claimed, would gradually make underarm hair finer and slow down the rate of growth. Of course, to placate cynics (like me) who assume the worst, the company highlighted the natural side of pro-epil complex with its sunflower oil and signature Dove "1/4 translucent moisturizers." Oh, well in that case, it must be safe! Sorry, Unilever, we are not fools. The formula is one strand shy of hair-raising.

Like most mass-market antiperspirants, Visibly Smooth stops sweat with a powerful element: aluminum. Aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex glycine, though better tolerated by the skin than other aluminum salts, brings with it the usual toxicity risks. This antibacterial agent works by temporarily closing the pores in the underarm skin, thus reducing the amount of perspiration that escapes. As aluminum blocks unpleasant odors, it also acts as a barrier to the body's natural attempt to release sweat through the armpit and regulate temperature. Could smearing a potentially toxic chemical onto open pores- the site of vitally important lymph nodes- be dangerous to our health? Might there be a link to hormone levels and breast cancer? Despite the FDA's assurances that cosmetic aluminum has tested safe, we remain skeptical.

The deodorant spreads on smoothly thanks to two silicones, cyclopentasiloxane and dimethicone, which feel light and silky on the sensitive underarm skin.  There is evidence that cyclopentasiloxane can not only penetrate human skin, reaching systemic circulation, but that it can also enhance the absorption of other ingredients. Though no studies have shown that topical silicones are carcinogenic- as is sometimes claimed- they may be mild skin irritants and marine life killers. Skin irritation is mostly due to their sealing action, which blocks sweat from escaping the pores (as if aluminum doesn't inflict enough damage on the body's natural processes).

Unless it's of the scent-free variety, most deodorants contain some sort of fragrance to mask your natural musk. Dove Visibly Smooth comes in two scents: Wild Rose and Nature Fresh, which sound as if their roots should be based in nature; however, Dove draws on artificial fragrance, a common repository of hormone-disrupting phthalates and the leading cause of contact dermatitis. BHT, a controversial masking agent, registers at a risk level of 7 in the Cosmetics Safety Database. High doses of BHT can cause significant damage to the lungs, liver, and kidneys, but its penetration of the skin appears to be very gradual. It remains to be seen whether topically applied BHT causes, retards, or has no effect on cancer. Polyethylene and PEG-8 are both high hazard ingredients with concerns of contamination and organ system toxicity. Even the seemingly benign mineral silica, often added to mineral makeup for its oil-absorbing properties, comes with allergy/immunotoxicity warnings.

But all of these ingredients are run-of-the-mill for an antiperspirant formula. Where's that magical "pro-epil complex" endowed with hair-minimizing powers? Turns out it's just a mixture of hair conditioners that soften underarm stubble, thus making it less noticeable. Dove's marketing message is misleading, since Visibly Smooth isn't actually meant to hold back hair growth. The fine print on Dove's website indicates that the product is only intended to make hair softer, easier to remove, and less noticeable between shaves. In fact, the website states that it will not make hair disappear. If Visibly Smooth did contain components capable of removing hair, it would be considered a drug subject to FDA regulations.

For the most part, reviews of Visibly Smooth praise its antiperspirant action (which is inevitable considering its 15% aluminum content), but complain that it doesn't deliver on its promises in the hair department. So it turns out that Unilever did not come up with such a revolutionary product after all, but rather a deodorant that blocks sweat and conditions skin. Not only does it fail to remove underarm hair, but it also puts the body at risk for any number of health hazards. The drawing board remains clear for a safe, effective hair-minimizing deodorant. So if you know anyone with a laboratory, a PhD, and some seed money...


Aluminum Zirconium Tetrachlorohydrex Gly (14.8%), Cyclopentasiloxane, Stearyl Alcohol, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, PPG-14 Butyl Ether, Hydrogenated Castor Oil, PEG-8, Fragrance, Dimethicone, Polyethylene, Silica, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Steareth-100, Nylon 12, Sorbitan Laurate, BHT, Palmatine, Red 40 Lake.