Anti Perspirants and breast cancer
In 6th grade, I had just started at a new school, so I was thrilled when a girl from my class wanted to come over. Unfortunately, my hopes for our budding friendship were dashed as soon as she walked into my room.
“Why do you have that?” she gasped, her judgment searing into me as I followed the direction of her pointed finger. I saw the subject of her scrutiny, but the weight of her concern was lost on me; could she really mean something so innocuous, so every day, so necessary to post-P.E. English class as deodorant?
“You know it’ll give you cancer,” she continued. She picked it up, examining the ingredients at arm’s length as if the mere presence of the stick put her at risk too. “Aluminum is really bad for you. You shouldn’t use this.”
This experience was an entry for me into the pervasive world of pop science and its little hysterias.
GMOs, microwaves, soy, MSG, coffee—for almost any ingredient or technological innovation, you can find alarming articles warning of their disease-causing properties and armies of people who avoid them with religious fervor. And while I never really believed my friend’s warning—over the years, I’ve remained the unashamed owner of countless aluminium-riddled sticks of deodorant/antiperspirant—her words stuck with me for years.
When I would shave at the end of the day, the remnants of the day’s antiperspirant under my arms, the thought of the aluminium leaking into my freshly opened pores was enough to send a small shudder down my spine. I’m happy to report, however, that those shudders were scientifically unfounded.
What my 6th-grade friend was really referring to was the antiperspirant portion of my deodorant.
While deodorant works to mask the scent of underarm sweat, antiperspirants are meant to prevent sweat from coming out in the first place.
The fear of antiperspirants began around the year 2000 when emails started to circulate with rumors about their carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, effects.
The premise of these claims was that these “carcinogens,” such as aluminum, were absorbed by small nicks in the skin brought about by underarm shaving.
These substances would accumulate in one’s lymph nodes, and because antiperspirants work to prevent sweat, they would stay in the body. Eventually, the high concentration of toxins could cause breast cancer.
At face value, this line of thinking makes enough sense to give one pause. However, there was no science backing up these claims, and the American Cancer Society (2014), among other leading institutions, has denied their validity, citing numerous studies that have found no link between antiperspirant use and breast cancer.
Mirick, Davis, and Thomas (2002) studied a total of 813 subjects with breast cancer and 793 control subjects, or subjects without breast cancer, in the state of Washington. The subjects represented a wide range of ages, between 20 and 74 years old. The researchers looked at the use of deodorant and/or antiperspirant, the use of a razor blade to shave, and the use of antiperspirant and/or deodorant within one hour of shaving and found no link between any of these activities and an increased risk of breast cancer, effectively rejecting the hypothesis that antiperspirants cause breast cancer.
A population of 1,606 is generally considered a rigorous sample size for such a study, but reproducibility is always an important factor to consider in research.
Fakri, Al-Azzawi, and Al-Tawil (2006) looked at a much smaller population of 54 women with breast cancer and 50 women without breast cancer in Iraq.
While they did find correlations between having breast cancer and other factors such as a family history of breast cancer, they did not find any link between the use of antiperspirants and having breast cancer.
In fact, there was a higher proportion of subjects without breast cancer who used antiperspirants than those with breast cancer.
Some worries specifically related to an aluminium claim that the element gets absorbed by the skin and causes changes in the estrogen receptors in breast cells.
The reasoning behind this worry comes from the fact that, while estrogen is an essential hormone in females, elevated levels of estrogen are associated with breast cancer, and the hormone may promote the growth of both non-cancerous and cancerous breast cells (American Cancer Society, 2014).
However, it seems that not much aluminium is absorbed through the skin at all—in fact, one study found that only 0.012% of the aluminium from the application of antiperspirants was absorbed by the skin, and the amount was only 2.5% of the aluminium that, in the same amount of time, is normally absorbed by the gut from food (Flarend et al., 2001).
Many people have also raised concerns about the absorption of parabens, which are preservatives sometimes found in cosmetic products, as parabens have estrogen-like properties. However, these properties are thousands of times weaker than actual estrogen, and scientists have yet to find a link between parabens and breast cancer (American Cancer Society, 2014). Even so, most deodorants/antiperspirants don’t use parabens anyway.
The cause for these concerns is understandable; about 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes, and it’s the deadliest type of cancer for women (Breastcancer.org, 2018).
Furthermore, breast cancer rates had been increasing for the two decades leading up to when these rumors started circulating (thankfully, that has changed, and rates have been on the decline since around 2000).
With such frightening odds, it’s easy to feel like you lack control and to grasp at any potential avenue for lessening your risk. But a lot of the time, these purported risk factors simply materialize from stray rumors and fear-mongering run amuck, as is the case with antiperspirants.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the conflicting opinions you may read on the internet on any given day, but my advice is to remain sceptical, stay informed, don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and sometimes, just listen to your own best judgment.
But if the ramblings of an aspiring young doctor aren’t enough to put you at ease, here’s some advice from my father, an oncologist with over 25 years of experience in practice, on a few of the best things you can do to lessen your risk of breast cancer:
- Stay hydrated, both internally and externally—drink lots of water and keep your skin moisturized
- Avoid red meat
- Eat organic produce (and lots of it!), and avoid pesticides as much as possible
- Exercise 4-5 times per week for at least 45 minutes
- Don’t smoke, and limit your alcohol intake to 2-3 drinks per week.
There are no guarantees in life—all we can do is the best we can. Stay safe, but don’t sweat the small stuff.
This article has been written by Bella Oliviera, Scripps College, Claremont, California