Breast cancer

Updated 28 May 2015

Antiperspirants and breast cancer

An email claiming that the leading cause of breast cancer is the use of anti-perspirants, is once again doing the rounds. We set out to find out the truth once and for all.

An email claiming that “the leading cause of breast cancer is the use of antiperspirants” is once again doing the rounds.

The proposed link may warrant further investigation, but there is no evidence to back up the claim that using antiperspirants increases the risk of developing breast cancer, even by a little.

The email in question grossly misrepresents the research, and contains some very basic errors.

The research
In the largest study done so far on the topic, researchers in 2002 found no link between breast cancer risk and the use of antiperspirants or deodorants. The study was published in the Journal of the National Institutes of Cancer.

A second, smaller, study published in 2003 in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention suggested that women who shave under their arms and use antiperspirant may develop breast cancer at a younger age. But significant questions have been asked about the design of this study.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), “the study design did not include a control group of women without breast cancer and has been criticised by experts as not relevant to the safety of these underarm hygiene practices.”

Even the study’s authors wrote that “case-controlled investigations are needed before alternative underarm hygiene habits are suggested.”

Putting it in perspective
According to the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), “researchers at the NCI are not aware of any conclusive evidence linking the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and the subsequent development of breast cancer. The US Food and Drug Administration also does not have any evidence or research data that ingredients in underarm antiperspirants or deodorants cause cancer.”

And according to the ACS, “the ACS is not aware of any strong epidemiologic studies reporting a statistical link between breast cancer risk and antiperspirant use.”

Parabens/tumour link?
A study published in 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found preservatives known as parabens in breast tumours. Parabens are used in certain cosmetics, medications, food, and antiperspirants.

The study results have been represented by some to suggest a link between breast cancer and antiperspirant use.

But as the US Food and Drug Administration points out, “the study left several questions unanswered. For example, the study did not show that parabens cause cancer, or that they are harmful in any way, and the study did not look at possible paraben levels in normal tissue.”

“FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens. However, the agency will continue to evaluate new data in this area,” the FDA concludes.

Purging toxins?
Apart from the generally misleading and alarmist nature of the email, there are also a number of straightforward errors or misrepresentations.

For example, according to the email, “antiperspirants, …, prevent you from perspiring, thereby inhibiting the body from purging toxins from below the armpits.”

It continues to say that, “these toxins do not just magically disappear. Instead, the body deposits them in the lymph nodes below the arms since it cannot sweat them out.”

The ACS points out that lymph nodes do indeed help to clear some toxins in the body. However, “the lymph nodes do not release these toxins through sweating. Sweat glands are not connected to lymph nodes. Sweat glands are located in the skin, not in the lymph nodes. Most cancer-causing substances are removed by the kidneys (and released into urine) and by the liver (and released into bile, which mixes with and is eliminated with faeces).”

Where tumours develop
The email also states that, “nearly all breast cancer tumours occur in the upper outside quadrant of the breast area. This is precisely where the lymph nodes are located.”

The email suggests that this in some way proves that antiperspirants are to blame.

Whereas it is true that most tumours occur in the upper-outside quadrant of the breast, the much simpler explanation for this is that the upper-outside quadrant is the largest of the four quadrants. And as the ACS points out, the number of tumours found in this quadrant is proportional to its relative size.

The bigger picture
Whereas the alarmist nature of the email is certainly not justified, wider, more considered, concerns about the ways in which we use chemicals may well be valid.

According to Health24’s envirohealth expert, Olivia Rose-Innes: “We have no clear idea yet what the cumulative health effect might be of all the chemical products we use on a daily basis. Studies tend to focus on looking at links between single chemicals or products and disease – not the cumulative effect of all the many different personal grooming, household cleaning, and other products we use.

“As a sensible precautionary measure, we should strive to reduce this “chemical burden” on our bodies (and the environment) – and using less deodorant, or ditching it completely, is a good place to start,” she said.

“Deodorant is quite unnecessary if you’re otherwise reasonably hygienic; it’s a luxury, not a necessity; one of the most successful advertising cons in history has been to persuade us that we need to mask all and every natural body odour, and that all body odours are offensive.” – (Marcus Low, Health24, September 2007)


US Food and Drug Administration

US National Cancer Institute

American Cancer Society

European Journal of Cancer Prevention


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Ask the Expert

Breast cancer expert

Dr Gudgeon qualified in Birmingham, England, in 1968. She has more than 40 years experience in oncology, and in 1994 she founded her practice, Cape Breast Care, where she treats benign and malignant breast cancers. Dr Boeddinghaus obtained her qualification at UCT Medical School in 1994 and her MRCP in London in 1998. She has worked extensively in the field of oncology and has a special interest in the hormonal management of breast cancer. She now works with Dr Gudgeon at Cape Breast Care. Read more.

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