Beauty Myths: Your Anti-Persperant Is Also Probably Not Giving You Cancer

When I was in elementary school, I had a hippie dippie teacher who was very certain that anti-persperant causes breast cancer. She solemnly lectured our class about the dangers of these products, asserting that she would never use such death traps on her own armpits. When I, as most pubescent children do, started getting gross and smelly, I thought about her warnings with mild, inert terror.

Thankfully, that terror, as with most cosmetics-related terror, is unfounded. If you want to rock the deodorant-free lifestyle, you rock on with your bad self. But if you’re hiding from anti-persperant products exclusively because you fear an inevitable disease-ridden doom, you might as well go buy yourself a stick of Dove.

The idea that anti-persperant might cause breast cancer was based on an observation: a disproportionate number of tumors occur in the upper outer quadrant of the breast tissue, directly adjacent to the area where women apply deodorant. This led some researchers to hypothesize that either parabens, a preservative, or aluminum chloride might cause or hasten breast cancer development.

Although rumors about a relationship between breast cancer and deodorant had been bouncing around for years, the icing on the panic-attack cake was a 2004 study by Darbre and colleagues that found small concentrations of parabens in breast cancer tissues. Although this doesn’t show anything on its own, as finding parabens in a small sample of breast cancer tissue does not demonstrate that said parabens actually did anything harmful, it definitely raised the alarm… albeit prematurely.

I’ve already written a bit about paraben-hysteria, wherein people freak out about how parabens are going to give you cancer and death and horror and AHHH HERE IS MY MONEY PARABEN-FREE COMPANIES. Thus, I’ll keep this brief. The Darbre study spurred a huge amount of (controlled, well-done) research into a potential relationship between breast cancer and parabens. These researchers found a whole lot of nothin’. Most have concluded that “it is biologically implausible that parabens could increase the risk of any estrogen-mediated endpoint, including effects on the male reproductive tract or breast cancer”. (Furthermore, given that one of the key pieces of ‘evidence’ suggesting that parabens cause breast cancer is the proximity of armpits to boobs, I have yet to see any well-considered explanation detailing why you would need to worry about putting parabens, say, in your foundation, which is rarely applied in the breast-y region. But I digress…)

The evidence that aluminum salts are harmful has been equally scant. A study by Exley and colleagues found that aluminum is present in breast tissue, but acknowledged that harmful effects had yet to be shown.

Thus, with evidence about the proposed harmful ingredients being a total wash, it may be more helpful to look at studies that look at deodorant as a whole. A literature review of 59 studies on the topic, published in 2008, provides a clear answer: “No scientific evidence to support the hypothesis [that deodorant is a risk factor for breast cancer] was identified and no validated hypothesis appears likely to open the way to interesting avenues of research.” They also add that most of the studies they looked at were methodologically unsound. These conclusions align in lockstep with the European and American health authorities.

As Ted Gansler, director of medical content for the American Cancer Society, observed, “There is no convincing evidence that antiperspirant or deodorant use increases cancer risk.”

If you are looking to decrease your risk for breast cancer, there are lots of real, non-smelly ways to do so, which include eating healthily, exercising, and keeping alcohol consumption low. You know, the stuff that makes shitty headlines. Breaking: “It’s Still A Good Idea To Eat Vegetables!”