The Stinky Truth About Antiperspirants & Deodorants
If you're at all health-counscious you've probably come across the argument that antiperspirants and deodorants are bad for you.
Health advocates posit that conventional antiperspirants and deodorants are bad for your health in a variety of ways; they say that they contain harmful substances which are then absorbed into the skin through, either nicks caused by shaving, or through the sweat glands and then into the lymph nodes to be distributed throughout the body.
This then led to the belief that antiperspirants and deodorants can cause breast cancer. That certain ingredients or components in these products cause or are related to breast cancer is due to the fact that they are applied frequently to an area next to the breast, an area in the upper outer quadrant of the breast where breast cancer typically appears (1)(2). They also argue that there is genomic instability in this area.
First of all, let's determine whether a clear link between antiperspirant/deodorant use and breast cancer has been established.
Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer
In 2002 one study was looking for a relationship between breast cancer and underarm antiperspirants/deodorants. This study didn't find any increased risk for breast cancer in women who used an antiperspirant or deodorant. These conclusions were based on interviews with 813 women with breast cancer and 793 women with no history of breast cancer.
Another study from 2003 examined the frequency of underarm shaving and antiperspirant/deodorant use among 437 breast cancer survivors. This was due to the widespread belief that small nicks created by shaving allowed certain chemicals to enter the body where they could pose a serious problem. This study found that the age of breast cancer diagnosis was significantly earlier in women who used these products and shaved their underarms more frequently. Women who began both of these habits before 16 years of age were diagnosed with breast cancer at an earlier age than those who began these habits later. While these results suggest that underarm shaving with the use of antiperspirants/deodorants may be related to breast cancer, it does not demonstrate a conclusive link between these habits and breast cancer. Why is this? Because aside from being a retrospective study prone to recall bias, it has one enormous flaw: there was no control group. It only looked at women who got breast cancer, and it didn’t control for a variety of confounding factors. For example, women who started using antiperspirants or shaving earlier probably went through puberty earlier (when you reach puberty, hormones affect the glands in your armpits which make sweat that can really smell) and, as a consequence, probably had their first menstrual period earlier. Starting menstruation early is also a known risk factor for breast cancer. Women who began shaving at an earlier age would also correlate well with early puberty. Regardless of these shortcomings, this study is commonly cited as "proof" that antiperspirants cause breast cancer.
In 2006, researchers also examined antiperspirant use among 54 women with breast cancer and 50 women without breast cancer. The study found no association between antiperspirant use and the risk of breast cancer; however, family history and the use of oral contraceptives were associated with an increased risk.
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.
Also, it is not true that "nearly all" breast cancers are in the upper outer quadrant although it is true that there is a propensity for breast cancer to appear there initially. It's true that a little more than half of all breast cancers develop first in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, but it’s not because of antiperspirant use. Despite what people may think, the distribution of breast tissue is not equal among all of the quadrants. Each quadrant doesn't contain one-quarter of the breast tissue making up the breast. There is actually much more breast tissue in the upper outer quadrant than there is in other quadrants of the breast, because of a part of the breast known as the “axillary tail”. It turns out that the number of breast cancers diagnosed in the upper outer quadrant is actually proportional to the amount of breast tissue located there. There is no preponderance for upper outer quadrant cancers when the distribution of breast tissue in the different quadrants is taken into account.
So, there is good evidence that there is no correlation between the use of antiperspirants and breast cancer, and a comprehensive literature review failed to find convincing evidence of a link, concluding, “After analysis of the available literature on the subject, no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis was identified and no validated hypothesis appears likely to open the way to interesting avenues of research.” In other words, although it’s possible that there is a link between antiperspirants and cancer, current existing evidence doesn’t support one.
So while there hasn't clearly been a link between underarm products and breast cancer established, let's see if there is a possible pathway that has been proven.
This argument is common particularly in regards to the ingredient aluminum, which has been used in the past as an active ingredient in many antiperspirants. Aluminum is known to have a genotoxic profile that is capable of causing both DNA alterations and epigenetic effects.
This would be consistent with its potential role in breast cancer, if such effects occurred in breast cells.
Estrogen is also an influencer of breast cancer, and this may prove to be another possible point of interference from aluminum. Results demonstrate that aluminium in the form of aluminium chloride or aluminium chlorhydrate can interfere with the function of estrogen receptors of human breast cancer cells both in terms of ligand binding and in terms of estrogen-regulated reporter gene expression.
In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, researchers tested breast samples from 17 breast cancer patients who had undergone mastectomies. The women who used antiperspirants had deposits of aluminum in their outer breast tissue. Concentrations of aluminum were higher in the tissue closest to the underarm than in the central breast.
People will suggest that aluminum is not normally found in the human body, so this to them is a sign that aluminum was being absorbed from antiperspirant. However, aluminum is found in measurable quantities in the body. A second article that suggested that there were detectable levels of aluminum in normal breast tissue, too. Again, what it claimed was that there was more aluminum in areas of the breast closer to the underarm. Four biopsies were taken, one from each quadrant, and the aluminum content was measured. There were large variations between the concentration of aluminum in the fat and the breast tissue between individuals. The authors claim they found a “statistically higher concentration of aluminium in the outer as compared with the inner region of the breast” even though their statistics showed that there was not. Meanwhile, a follow-up study by the same group from 2013 found “no statistically significant regionally specific differences in the content of aluminium” and found that the concentrations of aluminum in patients with breast cancer were “comparable with those reported in non-diseased human tissues from other areas of the body.” Soo .. essentially, aluminum's role is inconclusive at best.
While aluminum in our underarm products may influence breast cancer risk, but it has not yet been clearly defined.
Some research has also focused on parabens, which are preservatives used in some deodorants and antiperspirants that have been shown to mimic the activity of estrogen in the body’s cells. Like aluminum's possible estrogenic effect, this may create a possible link for antipersperants in breast cancer.
The belief that parabens build up in breast tissue was supported by a 2004 study, which found parabens in 18 of 20 samples of tissue from human breast tumors. However, this study did not prove that parabens cause breast tumors; the researchers didn't analyze healthy breast tissue or tissues from other areas of the body, and didn't accurately demonstrate that parabens are found only in cancerous breast tissue. Furthermore, this research did not identify the source of the parabens and cannot effectively establish that the buildup of parabens is due to the use of deodorants or antiperspirants.
Regardless, although parabens may have the potential to increase breast cancer risk, according to the FDA, most major brands of deodorants and antiperspirants in the United States do not currently contain parabens. So no need to avoid antiperspirants specifically for that reason. Of course you will want to check the ingredients, just in case.
Another argument is that antiperspirants prevent the body from "purging toxins" that can then deposit in the lymph nodes, where they can produce cancer-causing mutations. This is simply not true. If there are cancer-causing effects, toxins are not at the root. It is not true that apocrine sweat glands (the sweat glands found predominately under the arm) are a major source of “detoxification,” nor is there any evidence that blocking these sweat glands results in the accumulation of “toxins” under the arm. The lymphatic system does clear some toxins, but the liver and kidneys play a more crucial role in purging substances from the body. It would be surprising if this were the cause.
More research is needed to examine whether the use of antiperspirants and deodorants specifically are the cause of the buildup of parabens and aluminum-based compounds in breast tissue. Additional research is also necessary to determine whether these chemicals can either alter the DNA in some cells or cause other breast cell changes that may lead to the development of breast cancer.
It has been quoted by the proponents of "natural" or "holistic" health themselves that "The strongest supporting evidence comes from unexplained clinical observations showing a disproportionately high incidence of breast cancer in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, just the local area to which these cosmetics are applied". If this is the strongest evidence, the evidence is lacking. And it is lacking. Although there may be correlation (correlation =/= causation), and there is a pathway, there is no conclusive evidence linking the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants to the subsequent development of breast cancer at this time. Neither The National Cancer Institute nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have any evidence or research data that suggests that ingredients in underarm products cause cancer.
If you want to learn more, visit this evaluation.
With that being said, you may still wish to avoid conventional underarm products for these reasons. Thankfully, avoiding aluminum is fairly easy, as most products are aluminum-free these days. Avoiding parabens is also fairly easy, as most products are also paraben-free.
Here are some vegan options without aluminum or parabens: