From bottles and microwaves to phones and McNuggets, it seems everything is giving us cancer. While I refuse to run from my car when pumping gas or stop using my cell phone, there is one allegedly carcinogenic item that I fear: deodorant. I used to be a fan of the clinical strength stuff; however I started getting a bit wary when I wouldn’t perspire for days on end. It just didn’t seem natural to have such incredibly dry pits. I started questioning if it was harmful that my deodorant was preventing my body from a natural process—sweating.
A popular email that circulated a few years back stated that antiperspirant causes cell mutations and leads to cancer. The explanation behind the assertion was that because we aren’t perspiring (thanks to our antiperspirant), our body has no way to rid itself of toxins. Since the toxins have nowhere to go, they deposit themselves in the lymph nodes and build up, leading to a higher likelihood of us developing breast cancer.
Subsequent research has proved the link between breast cancer occurrences and antiperspirant to be highly debatable and not necessarily true. Still, many consumers have switched from standard brands to the all-natural, aluminum-free stuff (myself included).
What’s the Alleged Link?
Cuts, nicks, and raw skin created by shaving supposedly leave skin more vulnerable to the absorption of harmful substances—specifically aluminum. Aluminum, short for aluminum chloride, is one of the most common environmental elements and a key ingredient in antiperspirants. If we absorb even more aluminum than normal into our bodies through nicks or cuts, it gets added to the natural toxins that our body is unable to release and increases our odds of developing breast cancer. Underarms are full of white-blood-cell-rich lymph nodes that aid in the removal of cancer-causing agents (including aluminum). Antiperspirants block the skin’s ability to sweat. When you can’t sweat, you can’t rid yourself of harmful cancer-causing toxins. These toxins need to go somewhere and they end up attaching to the lymph nodes under your arms, which, logically speaking, could cause breast cancer. Antiperspirant is allegedly a carcinogen because it both prevents the body from releasing toxins and implants the toxins themselves.
Aluminum may also cause a hormonal effect similar to estrogen. Estrogen causes the production of breast cells—both normal and cancer-causing—to grow and multiply. Some scientific research does indicate that this could be a contributing factor, however the National Cancer Institute refutes these claims. Studies show that many naturally occurring compounds in the environment can mimic the production of estrogen and cause breast cancer, so antiperspirants can’t necessarily carry all the blame.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), most breast cancers develop in the upper fourth quadrant of the breast—the part closest to where the arm is attached. This is the area where deodorant is applied, further fueling the debate that antiperspirants are linked to breast cancer. Those who believe there’s a link say that men have lower incidences of developing breast cancer from using antiperspirant because they don’t shave. The hair under their arms allegedly helps prevent the absorption of harmful chemicals by the skin.
What About Parabens?
Parabens are a type of preservative frequently used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, including deodorants and antiperspirants. They’re found in everything from toothpaste to shampoo and are largely considered quite safe due to their low toxicity profile. A 2004 study by the American Cancer Society found traces of parabens in some breast cancer tumors. In their study of twenty tumors, researchers found high concentrations of parabens in eighteen samples. It’s possible in this case that they may have entered breast tissue through the underarms. However, the ACS still ruled that all studies conducted on parabens have not shown any direct scientific link.
Luckily, deodorants and antiperspirants made in the United States rarely contain parabens. Just to be on the safe side, consumers can look at labels and avoid any antiperspirants or deodorants with parabens, commonly called: methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or benzylparaben.
When it comes to parabens, the verdict is still out. It’s not possible to directly link them with breast tumors, but it’s also not possible to say they’re entirely safe. More research is needed to see if using a deodorant or antiperspirant with parabens can cause changes in tissue that could lead to breast cancer.
So, Go Natural or Not?
The National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Health, and FDA have all emphatically said there are no conclusive findings linking deodorant to breast cancer. A 2002 study conducted by the American Cancer Society comparing women with and without breast cancer found no link between antiperspirant and breast cancer, either.
The National Cancer Institute says, “Because studies of antiperspirants and deodorants and breast cancer have provided conflicting results, additional research is needed to investigate this relationship and other factors that may be involved.”
With regard to the shaving connection, while razor nicks and the friction from a roll-on deodorant or antiperspirant can increase skin infections and irritations, it’s highly unlikely that a significant amount of carcinogens can reach breast cells.
The American Cancer Society states that the exact cause of breast cancer still remains unclear. They further state that the most direct link they have found is due to changing hormone levels, which are often tied to obesity and post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy. Our best bets for lowering our risk of contracting breast cancer are regular exercise, managing our weight, avoiding smoking and drinking, and not taking hormones unnecessarily.
While I’m no oncologist, even though the ACS and NCI refute any link between breast cancer and the use of antiperspirant, I’m still sticking to the natural (and sometimes smelly) stuff. I apologize in advance for any unappealing odors.
Updated September 24, 2010