Think Pink: Does Antiperspirant Really Cause Breast Cause Cancer?

Back before every email service had a spam filter, you probably received a chain message claiming that antiperspirant is the leading cause of breast cancer among both men and women.  The email, which was hugely popular about 10 years ago, may be long gone (thank goodness), but the rumor won’t seem to die. So what’s the verdict?

It’s important to clarify that, while may people refer to anything meant to be smeared onto your armpit as “deodorant”, it’s specifically antiperspirant, which keeps you from sweating, that’s the guilty party in the cancer rumors. Which is not to say that deodorant doesn’t have its own unhealthy potential (because it’s made of chemicals)–but it’s not being rumored to cause cancer, so that’s a topic for another day.

Now that we’ve got that straight, what is it about the sweat-stoppers that have been making users nervous for over a decade? According to the American Cancer Society, the rumor states that, because underarm shaving leaves nicks and cuts, the skin there is vulnerable to absorb toxins from the antiperspirant. And, because it’s the nature of the beast, after using antiperspirant, the body is unable to expel the toxins, causing a build-up, which becomes cancer. And because the armpits are close to the lymph nodes, which are close to the breasts, they must be related, right?

When put that way, it does sound a little outlandish, doesn’t it?

Since the email began circulating and the rumor picked up steam, there have been a lot of studies on the matter. And most of them have shown little to no correlation between women who developed breast cancer, and those who used the accused antiperspirants. As a result, most doctors and organizations report that the rumor has, as of now, no concrete evidence to support it.

But here’s the rub: any scientist will tell you that it’s really, really hard to prove actual causality. Which means it’s also extremely difficult to prove a lack of causality. Essentially, it’s nearly impossible to say, conclusively, that something absolutely does not contribute to a person’s cancer risk.

Particularly considering that some scientists, according to the National Cancer Institute, have suggested that the key ingredient in antiperspirant, which is aluminum-based, which has the ability to promote estrogen production, there may actually be some truth to the rumors. Because increased estrogen levels may assist in the growth of breast cancer cells. But that’s far from a cause-and-effect link.

What has been found, however, is that women who do shave and use antiperspirants are may be more likely to detect cancer earlier–possibly because they’re already concerned about the risk.

And there’s definitely one part of the myth that’s assuredly false: that antiperspirant is the “leading cause” of cancer, as the email purported. That just isn’t true, and no one will tell you otherwise.

For the most part, the link between antiperspirant and breast cancer is sketchy, at its most dangerous–and non-existent at its least. But if you’re concerned (because, you know, antiperspirant is full of chemicals, and because there haven’t been many studies on the long-term effects of applying the stuff daily), you can opt for deodorant that doesn’t contain aluminum products, or try a natural kind. Or, if you really want to go back in time (to the days before email chains and Internet health rumors), you can make your own.

Image: nemke / Shutterstock

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