For years, stories about a possible link between underarm deodorants and breast cancer have made the rounds of internet discussion forums, natural health newsletters and, most recently, blogs. Stirring the debate are a handful of conflicting studies published in mainstream medical journals. How much of this concern is rooted in fact? Let’s find out.
It’s important to remember that we’re really talking about two different ingredients here–aluminum and parabens. Aluminum compounds are used in antiperspirants, but not deodorants, while parabens, a family of “natural” preservatives, are found in many different cosmetics, including antiperspirants, deodorants and skin care products. Though they serve very different purposes, both aluminum and parabens have been linked to breast cancer, according to some natural health advocates.
Aluminum compounds are added to antiperspirants to decrease perspiration and to keep bacterial growth in check. In fact, the addition (or absence) of aluminum compounds is usually what determines if a product is marketed as a deodorant or an antiperspirant. Unfortunately, two widely-publicized studies in 5 years have offered directly conflicting data on aluminum’s potential link to breast cancer.
One of the largest studies to look at a possible link between antiperspirants and breast cancer, and the one regarded as the most credible, was released in 2002 and published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. This study looked at 1,600 women and included about 800 women with breast cancer. This study found no link between breast cancer and either underarm shaving or antiperspirant use. Other, smaller studies have offered similar results.
But in 2003 a study was published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention that seemed to find just the opposite. Researchers involved in that study found that women were diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in life if they had a history of using underarm cosmetics and underarm shaving. However, this study was criticized for both its size (800 women) and its lack of a control group. Nevertheless, the findings were provocative enough to worry many.
So what about parabens? A 2004 British study found traces of parabens in every single breast cancer tumor they examined. Now, this study was very small and there’s no way of knowing whether the parabens came from underarm products or not but the fact that they were found in every single sample was worrisome. Parabens are troubling because they act as very mild estrogenics, potentially increasing estrogen production. Whether parabens actually do this has never been documented but, again, the findings of this study were provocative.
“Natural” practitioners have been divided on this issue. Dr. Andrew Weil cautions women “to remember that other sources of estrogen present a much greater risk”. He reminds us that estrogen is produced by our own bodies, taken into our bodies through hormone replacement medications and is even in the foods we eat. Dr. Weil advises anyone worried about antiperspirants to simply purchase cosmetics and underarm toiletries that avoid these ingredients.
Dr. Joseph Mercola, however, disagrees. He acknowledges that the data is conflicting but advises his readers to “Get a clue and avoid the chemicals, save some money, prolong your life and drop the underarm chemicals”.
Whether you choose to avoid antiperspirants is up to you. But one thing you don’t have to worry about is antiperspirants clogging your lymph system. A popular myth circulating on the internet claims that by preventing sweating, antiperspirants cause “toxins” to overtax the lymph nodes under the arms, possibly encouraging the development of cancerous cells. The fact is, many breast cancers are first identified in the upper quadrant area but it may have nothing at all to do with cosmetics. There’s simply a lot of breast tissue in that area but most women don’t realize that breast tissue actually extends beyond the area normally covered by a bra cup.
And as for the myth of “clogging” your lymph system goes, you don’t have to worry about that, either. Your sweat glands are not even connected to your lymph system. And perspiration really doesn’t remove toxins from your body, anyway. Sweating is a cooling mechanism.
Only your doctor is qualified to evaluate your risk of developing breast cancer. If you have any questions about the possible link between underarm cosmetics and breast cancer, talk to him or her about your specific concerns. Your doctor has a wealth of information on this topic and would love to help you sort the nonsense from the science.