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Does Antiperspirant Cause Breast Cancer?
October 23, 2008
As our society moves into an age of technology where the internet is the number one educational source for most people, the number of health risks has sky rocketed. Recently, an increasing number of people have started to be cautious about wearing deodorant, for fear it causes cancer. Internet slogans such as “the leading cause of breast cancer is antiperspirant” (http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/antiperspirant.asp) have invaded the public’s mind, without having the proper research to support their claims. These claims have gone so far as to scare the public into either not wearing antiperspirant at all, or buying hard-to-find aluminum free antiperspirant. So what is all this about?
Deodorant vs. Antiperspirant: What’s the Difference?
First and foremost the difference between deodorant and antiperspirants needs to be made clear. Deodorant is a substance used to diminish the odor caused by perspiration. It is primarily made up on alcohol, which temporarily kills the bacteria that colonize in warm, moist environments (notably on a person’s underarm). Sweat itself is not what causes a fowl odor. Instead, bad smells form when bacteria colonize and ferment the sweat. These bacteria feed off of sweat, hair cells, and dead skin. Underarm hair is important in the sweat prevention process because it removes sweat from the skin, keeping it dry enough to diminish bacteria colonizing. Thus, since hair does not provide a nice environment for bacteria to colonize, bacteria will not grow as rapidly and odor will not be as prevalent. Deodorant does not attempt to prevent a person from sweating, but only tries to control the odor released after bacteria colonize on the sweat. Antiperspirants, on the other hand, attempt to actually reduce sweat and prevent odor from various body parts. These substances are most commonly used to control underarm odor or sweat, however spray on deodorants are also used on various other parts of the body. They are made up of aluminum-based complexes, which react with the body’s electrolytes to effectively plug the adrenal glands, preventing it from releasing liquid. These plugs are eventually diminished after gradual desquamation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deodorant). Most of the claims about underarm cosmetics causing cancer refer to antiperspirants, not deodorant.
What Exactly is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is defined by the National Cancer Institute as “Cancer that forms in tissues of the breast, usually the ducts (tubes that carry milk to the nipple) and lobules (glands that make milk)” (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/breast). Cancer starts when a cell or group of cells become malignant (cancerous). Malignant cells display three main properties: uncontrollable growth, invasion of surrounding tissues, and sometimes the spreading of the malignant cells to other parts of the body (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cancer). Unlike normal cells, which divide and grow in a normal fashion, malignant cells grow at an extremely high rate, crowding out normal cells. When the body looses a lot its normal cells, the results are deadly.
Why Are So Many Women Worried About Breast Cancer?
Even though in 2007 alone it was the cause of 548,000 deaths worldwide, the exact causes of breast cancer are still hard to pinpoint. There are, however, a few risk factors that doctors have been able to determine, such as old age, obesity, a poor diet, lack of physical activity, and a family history of breast cancer (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs297/en/index.html). If breast cancer is detected in a woman (the procedure is different for males), surgery is usually performed to try to remove as much of the breast tumor as possible. There are many different types of surgeries that attempt to eradicate the tumor, such as a lumpectomy. In a lumpectomy, the surgeon only removes the lump and the surrounding tissue, following with radiation treatment. However, in a mastectomy, the surgeon removes all of the breast tissue. This is especially common with breast cancer prevention (http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_2_4X_How_Is_Breast_Cancer_Treated_5.asp?sitearea=)
Could Antiperspirant Be A Possible Cause?
In the 1990’s, an email began to circulate among women that described the harmful effects of antiperspirant on a woman’s body. The email claimed that antiperspirant contained harmful chemicals that were absorbed by the body through small cuts in the skin resulting from shaving (http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2005/405_sweat.html). Other emails of the same nature claimed that antiperspirants do not allow the body to perspire, and thus toxins do not get released from the body. Since it is important for the body to release toxins through sweat, this toxins in the body to build up. The email said that these toxins were then deposited into the lymph nodes, eventually forming cell mutations, or cancer (http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/antiperspirant.asp). There is some speculation that the rumor started because of doctors telling women to not wear antiperspirant when they are getting screened for breast cancer. However, this is because the residue left on the arm can be misconstrued as a lump on x-rays, not because there is any association between breast cancer and the antiperspirant patients were wearing. Right now, there is a 1 in 8 chance that a woman may develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Breast cancer is also the second leading cause of deaths due to cancer (http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_1X_What_are_the_key_statistics_for_breast_cancer_5.asp). With these types of statistics around, this email had mothers and daughters everywhere on high alert. People have switched to using the hard-to-find aluminum free antiperspirants, or have stopped using any kind of antiperspirant at all. Women everywhere are still saying that antiperspirant is the number one cause of breast cancer, and warning all their friends and family to be careful with regards to antiperspirant, even though these claims were completely unfounded.
With all this commotion over antiperspirants causing cancer, scientists began to research the effects that antiperspirants have on the body. Some scientists believe that antiperspirants are risk factors for breast cancer since most types of breast cancers are in the outer quadrant of the breast, near where antiperspirant is applied. These scientists are also forwarding the idea that parabens, which are found in cosmetics and toiletries for preservation uses, can imitate the effects of oestrogen, which is commonly associated with cancer growth (Gandy and others, 2005). With all this commotion over antiperspirants causing cancer, where is the proof?
A Closer Look at the Studies
In 2005, one scientist studied between the large amounts of breast cancer in the outer quadrant of the breast. He argued that this was not because of underarm cosmetics, but rather because of the high amount of breast tissue in this area. After reviewing seven hundred and forty-six biopsies, it was concluded that the hypothesis was right: the large amount of breast cancer in the fourth quadrant of the breast was indeed due to the very high amounts of breast tissue in the area (Lee, 2005). This quickly refuted the idea that breast cancer is caused by antiperspirant because of its close positioning to antiperspirant application. However, there are still many debates over other causes of breast cancer due to antiperspirant application that are still argued today.
In 2003, the European Journal of Cancer Prevention published a study in which four hundred thirty-seven women diagnosed with breast cancer were surveyed. The women were put into groups depending on the frequency and the age when they began using antiperspirant. The study found that there was a correlation between the frequency and age a person began to use antiperspirant and the age at which they developed breast cancer. Thus, the more antiperspirant they used, the earlier the women developed breast cancer. The experimenters did not claim causation. They merely suggested that antiperspirant may play a role in breast cancer, but that role was unknown (McGrath, 2003). It is obvious, however, that this study was not flawless, because there is a lack of a control group. In order for the results to be taken seriously, a control group would have needed to be added. The results from this study were not conclusive. The study does suggest that further research in this area should be done, but it does not prove in any way that antiperspirant is the leading cause of breast cancer.
In another attempt to prove that antiperspirants are the cause of breast cancer, Dr. Phillipra Darbre did a study in 2005 where she found that parabens, once absorbed into the bloodstream, can possibly have the same effects as estrogen on a woman’s body, which aids cancerous cell growth. Again, Darbre did not attempt to claim causality. She says that further research into the subject needs to be done, and merely shows that parabens can act as cancer promoters (Darbre, 2005). Since then, there have been no studies that show that parabens cause breast cancer. Also, as previously stated, parabens are not only found in deodorants but also in other cosmetic products. Thus, it would be hard to claim that all of these parabens came from deodorant use. Finally, parabens are not nearly as potent as natural estrogen made by the body. Thus, even if there was a link to cancer, natural estrogen would be much more likely to take part in cancer development (http://www.cancer.org/docroot/MED/content/MED_6_1x_Antiperspirants.asp).
Then, in a case control study in 2002, eight hundred and thirteen patients with breast cancer were tested against seven hundred and ninety-three control subjects. In an interview, women were asked about the frequency of their use of antiperspirant and deodorant, and also how often they shaved with a razor blade and then applied antiperspirant. The study concluded that there was no relationship between either the amount of antiperspirant or antiperspirant and shaving, and breast cancer (Davis and others, 2002).
In the most recent meta-analysis conducted in 2008, researchers studied nineteen articles pertaining to the link between antiperspirants and breast cancer. While most of the methods explained in the articles were flawed, the researchers concluded that there is no scientific evidence that definitively proves that there cause and effect relationship between breast cancer and antiperspirant (Gligorov and others, 2008). This finding is directly in accordance with what organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.
The Bottom Line
In conclusion, the scientific findings linking breast cancer and antiperspirants are inconclusive. Much of the data conflicts with one another, and not enough experiments have been properly conducted to definitively have an answer. As of right now, further research needs to be conducted in order to find if there is a link between breast cancer and antiperspirants, although even if there is a link, there are much bigger risk factors out there that people should be more worried about (such as their diet and family history). Readers should learn to take caution in reading forwarded emails containing health claims, and turn to more reliable sources before making their own decision on the subject.
Darbre, P. (2005). Aluminum, Antiperspirants, and Breast Cancer. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, 99(9), 1912-9.
Davis, S., Mirick, DK., Thomas, DB. (2002). Antiperspirant Use and the Risk of Breast Cancer. Journal of National Cancer Institute, 94(20), 1578-80.
Gandy, J., Golden, R., Vollmer, G. (2005). A review of the endocrine activity of parabens and implications for potential risks to human health. Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 35(5), 435-58.
Gligorov, J., Lokiec, F., Luporsi, E., Namer, M., Spielmann, M. (2008). The use of deodorants/antiperspirants does not constitute a risk factor for breast cancer. Bulletin du Cancer, 95(9), 871-80.
Lee, AH. (2005). Why is carcinoma of the breast more frequent in the upper outer quadrant? A case series based on needle core biopsy diagnoses. Breast, 14(2), 151-2.
McGrath, KG. (2003). An earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis related to more frequent use of antiperspirants/deodorants and underarm shaving. European Journal of Cancer Prevention, 12(6), 479-85.
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