Does Antiperspirant Cause Breast Cancer?
Dear Dr Laura,
I am a breast cancer survivor. I don't need to use antiperspirant because I don't sweat much at all, and I never have. However, my daughter is going through puberty and she is starting to need an antiperspirant. What are your thoughts on the safety of antiperspirants?
Sweating in the Suburbs
Dear Sweating in the Suburbs,
Bravo on getting through that terrible cancer diagnosis. If you can walk that road, you can walk through anything.
Even this stinky situation.
I think about antiperspirants like this: they work, but not everyone needs them and we still have our questions about them. So I do not recommend them for everybody.
Let me explain.
There is an important difference between antiperspirants and deodorants. Though frequently used interchangeably, their names give their functions away. One (de-odorant) gets rid of the odor from sweat, affectionately known as "BO", the other (anti-perspirant) stops a person from sweating in the first place. Both have their potential downsides, and both have their upsides.
A few years ago, antiperspirants got called into question for their potential link to breast cancer which is still highly debated and not conclusive. But what happened is this. It seems that most breast tumors occur in the upper outer region of the breast, just below the armpit. There might be many reasons for this. But this is exactly where we might suspect antiperspirant would meet breast tissue and possibly accumulate.
The problem is that it seems that sometimes aluminum acts like a pro-estrogen agent. This doesn't necessarily translate to humans, but it gives us pause. If it happens in the petri dish, does that mean it will happen in our bodies? Unfortunately, we don't have that answer just yet. About twenty years ago, a study of 800 women who were breast cancer survivors, just like you, showed no relationship between breast cancer and antiperspirant. Whew.
But a few years after that in the Eurpoean Journal of Cancer Prevention, a link was demonstrated between breast cancer and underarm shaving prior to application of antiperspirant. Wait, what?
It was theorized that by nicking the skin, prior to applying antiperspirant, women were more likely to have aluminum get under the protective skin by getting through the micro-sized nicks caused by a shave blade. In fact, the FDA specifically advises against using aluminum chloride on broken-down skin. But the problem is that people don't associate those micro-abrasions with broken-down skin, and more importantly, people may not even know about this advisory. We need more studies to suss this out. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation: "Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) are not aware of any conclusive evidence linking the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and the subsequent development of breast cancer." Again, we need more studies. As in, now.
If you check out the Environmental Working Group for a ranking of antiperspirants, in general they don't rate the risk of cancer to be high in aluminum salts. Their biggest target is another product sometimes found in antiperspirants, talc. That's a story for another day.
All of this is very different from deodorants. These products take away odor from sweat usually by trying to neutralize it with products like baking soda, or to conceal it with fragrance. Unless they are combined products, conventional deodorants don't contain alumninum salts so they don't share the same potential risk due to aluminum salts. However, some contain other potentially dangerous compounds, and some of them contain fragrances that can be quite irritating to the skin.
Some people need prescription antiperspirants for sweating disorders. Think, a pianist who can't perform due to sweaty hands, a military sharp shooter whose hands are slippery due to sweat, a young person drenching through clothes in school while just sitting. But this is not everyone.
For kids going through puberty, especially those in whom there is a strong family history of breast cancer, a natural deodorant alone will go a long way. I've heard many great things about this one and they make an unscented/fragrance free one as well. I totally get it. You want the very best for your family. We want to protect them from the fires we have walked through. We want them to walk gently and not have to run. They will always be the babies we washed in pots because we couldn't afford tubs when we were starting out, even when they tower over us and stink a little bit. Excuse me while I choke back my own tears of nostalgia.
We must arm ourselves with knowledge. Kudos to you, mama, for seeking it out.
1. We still have our questions about aluminum-containing antiperspirants and a potential link to breast cancer. The evidence linking them is definitely NOT compelling, but it's not worth dismissing either. We need more studies. In the meantime, I personally use antiperspirant only occasionally and I NEVER use it on broken-down or post-shaved skin. Ever.
2. Some people need these products more than others, and no two people share the exact same risk. Life is like that. For many, the benefits very much outweigh the (hopefully low) risks.
3. Fortunately, there are deodorant products that work for the vast majority of people and circumstances, where the biggest risk is allergy to the things that make them smell better than sweat. This is an important consideration when considering a product if you have sensitive skin. Read your labels.
I hope that helps, dear Sweating in the Suburbs. Bravo to you on the fight.
Yours on the journey,
Check out more at @dr.laura.md on instagram or in the blog archives at drlauramd.net.
Mamas. what is your biggest skin concern for you or your family? What is the biggest problem I can help you sort through? Submit your question at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to get to it.
Journal of Cancer Research
Eur J Cancer Prev. 2003 Dec;12(6):479-85
Ann Dermatol Venereol 2020 May;147
Our site uses affiliate links from which we may earn a small commission. Dr Laura only links to products we personally love or those about which we have heard great things. Thank you so much for your support. It means so much to us.