A few years ago, an email made its way around the internet claiming a personal product nearly everyone uses every day causes breast cancer.
The culprit? Antiperspirants — specifically, the aluminum in antiperspirants and some deodorants.
Should we be worried? What’s the latest?
While nobody knows where the email originated, the idea caught on and spread like wildfire… to the point that scientists have been researching its claims ever since.
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as clear-cut as we’d like. Most scientists are still reluctant to take a stance one way or the other – they won’t say it’s perfectly safe, nor will they say it causes cancer.
But while evidence to date may not be conclusive enough for most scientists, you can – and should – examine it and make your own decision.
1+1=2… Or does it?
The anonymous author’s argument was based more on combining logic and statistics than on previously conducted scientific studies. Its main line of reasoning was this…
Carcinogens (in this case, aluminum) are ingredients in most antiperspirants. When women shave their underarms and then apply antiperspirant, carcinogens are easily absorbed through the thinner and often-nicked skin.
They penetrate your lymph nodes, where aluminum-based compounds in the antiperspirant block your sweat glands to keep you from perspiring…which is one of the ways our bodies get rid of toxins.
Eventually, the toxic build-up leads to cell mutation and cancer.1
That’s why, according to the argument, the majority of breast cancer cases are in the upper outer quadrant of the breast – closest to the lymph nodes affected by antiperspirants.2
The logic sounds reasonable enough… but what does the research say?
Scientists at odds…
The popular view among many large organizations like the American Cancer Society is that aluminum in antiperspirants poses no problem.
However, on its website, the ACS does admit that some research suggests these aluminum compounds can be absorbed by the skin and trigger changes in the breasts’ estrogen receptors. Because estrogen can promote the growth of both cancerous and non-cancerous breast cells, some scientists suggest that using aluminum-based compounds in antiperspirants may be a risk factor for the development of breast cancer.3
Other individuals and groups are bolder in their opinions. Heather Patisaul, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at North Carolina State University, has studied endocrine disruptors in some depth and voiced her concerns.
“When you eat something,” she says, “it’s broken down by your liver and digestive system. But when you put something on your skin… it can enter your bloodstream without being metabolized.”4
Dr. Patisaul noted that certain substances are better than others at sneaking into your body directly through the skin, but “blood tests show that many of the substances commonly included in deodorant products can, in fact, worm their way past the epidermis and into the body.” She cited a number of concerning ingredients in antiperspirants, including aluminum.5
Other studies have found increased levels of aluminum in the nipple aspirate fluid and in malignantly changed breast tissue in women with breast cancer.6
And when breast epithelial cells in the lab were exposed to aluminum chloride over a long period of time, they formed tumors and metastasized.7
What an Austrian hospital discovered…
A study in an Austrian hospital found a significant link between the use of underarm cosmetics – antiperspirant and deodorant – and breast cancer risk, as well as a high correlation between aluminum concentration in breast tissue and deodorant or antiperspirant use.8
While acknowledging that other studies showed contradictory results, “this study had the added strength of asking women about cosmetic use within specific periods of their lives. Frequent cosmetic use under age 30 was significantly associated with risk for cancer. Additionally, no prior studies assessed aluminum concentration in breast tissue as a risk factor.”9
But — as with all studies that rely on what people remember — the results can be skewed by young people perhaps remembering more accurately… and the risk of recall bias for all participants.
When it comes to the combined effects of underarm shaving and the use of antiperspirants, studies show conflicting results.10
Some organizations and many individual scientists and doctors have made strong statements on one side or the other. But the National Cancer Institute seems to voice the majority opinion: “Because studies of antiperspirants and deodorants and breast cancer have provided conflicting results, additional research would be needed to determine whether a relationship exists.”11
So while we don’t have conclusive evidence proving aluminum in deodorant directly increases your risk of breast cancer, the possible link between aluminum and cancer provides a strong incentive to limit your exposure.
Cleaning house – it’s not just your deodorant
Deodorants and antiperspirants that don’t contain potentially dangerous ingredients can be hard to find. A few companies that produce cleaner options are Be Green, PurelyGreat, and Qet Botanicals. I’m an ardent fan of those crystal deodorant sticks that prevent odor with mineral compounds. The brand I use is Thai Stick. There are others.
As for antiperspirants, is it really a good idea to prevent sweating? I think not. I understand that people don’t like wet spots under their arms, especially when wearing nice clothing for a special event. But. . .maybe we should accept some aspects of being human.
If you feel ambitious, you can even try making your own deodorant. A quick Google search will provide you with a vast array of recipes. But here’s a simple one: mix 1/3 cup coconut oil, 2 tablespoons baking soda, 1/3 cup arrowroot powder, and, if you want a scent, 10-15 drops of your favorite essential oil.
Much of the research about aluminum and cancer has focused on deodorants and antiperspirants.
But you should also be aware of these other sources of aluminum:
- Cosmetics – carefully check the labels of any hair or skin product you buy
- Pans and cooking utensils
- Aluminum foil and food packaging
- Aluminum materials at work – certain professions work regularly with these materials
- Mandriota SJ, Tenan M, Ferrari P, Sappino AP. Aluminium chloride promotes tumorigenesis and metastasis in normal murine mammary gland epithelial cells. Int J Cancer. 2016;19 30393.