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Antiperspirants and Cancer: Hype or Valid Concern?

Wondering whether to ditch your antiperspirant? We examine the science to see if you really have to choose between B.O. and breast cancer risk.

January 23rd, 2014

Antiperspirants and Cancer: Hype or Valid Concern?

A troubling email went viral back in 1999:

“I just got information from a health seminar that I would like to share,” the email read. “The leading cause of breast cancer is the use of anti-perspirant. Yes, ANTI-PERSPIRANT.”

If you got that email or a similar version, which has been making the rounds for years, you might have had a moment of panic, wondering if the antiperspirant you glide on every day actually causes cancer. Despite the fact that both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute deny there is any conclusive evidence linking breast cancer with antiperspirant use, concerns continue to linger and circulate online.

Let’s Look at the Research
In 2003, Kris McGrath, M.D., of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine published a study that looked at 437 women with breast cancer. He examined their use of antiperspirant/deodorant, their underarm shaving habits, and their age when diagnosed with breast cancer.

The women who shaved the most frequently and used antiperspirants/deodorant the most frequently were diagnosed with breast cancer 22 years earlier than the non-users, according to Dr. McGrath. “And the women that started shaving and using antiperspirants before age 16 were diagnosed nine years earlier than the ones that started after age 16,” he says.

However, McGrath's study did not use a control group, and it provided no evidence that underarm shaving or antiperspirants/deodorant actually caused the cancer.

A larger study out of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington looked at 813 women with breast cancer and 793 women without breast cancer and found no relationship between the women's underarm hygiene habits and whether or not they had breast cancer. 

Problematic Parabens?
Much of the concern over antiperspirants has centered around parabens—a class of chemicals used to prevent bacteria from growing in cosmetic products.

Philippa Darbre, Ph.D., of the University of Reading in the U.K., has been measuring the concentration of parabens in breast tissue removed from women with breast cancer for over a decade. She points to a 2012 study that found parabens in 99 percent of these infected samples. Darbre says parabens can mimic the action of the hormone estrogen. “Estrogen is one of the things that drives the growth of breast tumors,” she points out.

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