Despite the many studies that have refuted rumors that antiperspirants are linked to breast cancer, these stories are still being perpetuated today. I was reminded of this recently when a family member shared this rumor with much conviction, having heard it from her hairstylist. The intent of this article is to provide the reader with a synopsis of some of the relevant research on this topic. I hope that this will arm you with an informed response when confronted by an ardent proponent.
First, some basic information: Antiperspirants are classified as over-the-counter drugs by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and a monograph has been established that provides guidelines for meeting this classification – FDA’s OTC antiperspirant monograph. The monograph specifies various aluminum salts that can be used as the active ingredients in antiperspirants. Those most commonly used in contemporary antiperspirant formulations include Aluminum Chlorohydrate, Aluminum Tetrachlorohydrex GLY and Aluminum Trichlorohydrex GLY.
Aluminum salts react with moisture on the skin to form a ‘plug’ which temporarily blocks sweat glands and helps reduce perspiration. One hypothesis that supports the link between antiperspirants and breast cancer is that the formation of these ‘plugs’ prevent the body from purging toxins, which then collect in the lymph nodes, eventually causing cellular changes that lead to cancer. This was addressed in an article published by the American Cancer Society1, which explained that lymph nodes do not excrete toxins through sweating since they are not connected to sweat glands.
At the heart of the claim that antiperspirant use elevates the risk of breast cancer is that aluminum salts are capable of penetrating the axillary vault, accumulating in breast cells, where they effect change that eventually leads to cancer. Dermal absorption of aluminum has been investigated. Results indicate that there is minimal absorption into healthy skin, with one study reporting that 0.012% of the applied aluminum was absorbed2.
However, another study found that aluminum uptake increased in compromised skin3. These results then raise the question of whether the combination of frequent underarm shaving and antiperspirant use increases the risk of breast cancer. This does not seem to be the case based on the results of a study which found that the risk of breast cancer did not increase among subjects who shaved4.
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Since carcinomas are commonly found in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, this fact is used to support the hypothesis that aluminum-based underarm cosmetics are linked to breast cancer. Based on the results of a 2005 study5, it would appear that the frequency of occurrence in this region is most likely due to the greater amount of breast tissue in the upper outer quadrant - a conclusion also drawn by the American Cancer Society1. Proponents also speculate that nicks caused by underarm shaving create a pathway for aluminum salts to enter breast cells resulting in mutations that lead to cancer. This, too, has been refuted by the American Cancer Society1.
Despite the body of scientific evidence that contradicts the notion that there is a link between antiperspirant use and breast cancer, skeptics remain unconvinced and questions persist. However, it is important to note that antiperspirants continue to be recognized as safe and effective for use by the FDA as well as major industry organizations.
- Cancer.org: Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer Risk
- Flarend R, et al. A preliminary study of the dermal absorption of aluminum from antiperspirants using aluminum 26. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2001 Feb; 39 (2) 163-8 (Pub Med Abstract)
- Pineau A, et al. In vitro study of percutaneous absorption of aluminum from antiperspirants through human skin in the Franz™ diffusion cell. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, May 2012 Vol. 110:21-26 (Pub Med Abstract)
- Mirick DK, Davis S, Thomas DB. Antiperspirant use and the risk of breast cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute2002; 94(20):1578–1580. (Pub Med Abstract)
- Lee AHS. Why is carcinoma of the breast more frequent in the upper outer quadrant? A case series based on needle core biopsy diagnoses. 2005;14:151–152
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