Does Deodorant Cause Cancer? The Alleged Risks of Odor Masking
- There are many misconceptions surrounding the potential risks of using deodorants and antiperspirants.
- Certain ingredients are linked to consumers’ concerns that antiperspirants could be linked to cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.
- There are currently no studies that justify these concerns; research shows no long-term risk from use of these products.
Online information is notoriously unreliable when it comes to potential links between cosmetics and cancer. Do the products we use every day put us at risk for serious health problems in the future? Deodorants and antiperspirants in particular often come up when asking this question.
Regardless of opinion, healthcare professionals and the most recent scientific studies provide the most reliable information.
Deodorant vs. Antiperspirant: What’s the Difference?
Before investigating the health risks allegedly involved in using deodorant or antiperspirant, it’s important to distinguish one from the other. Both are formulated to reduce body odor, but each one does so in a different way using different chemicals.
“Sweat is odorless until it combines with bacteria on the skin’s surface,” explains New York City dermatologist and founder of FryFace, Dr. Fayne L. Frey. Deodorants use antimicrobial ingredients to kill these bacteria while masking the smell with fragrance.
Antiperspirants attempt to reduce the smell from that same chemical reaction by reducing sweat. Most use aluminum-based compounds to act as a sort of plug, preventing perspiration from reaching the skin’s surface. Like deodorants, they may also include fragrance.
Which Is Best?
For the most part, dermatologists recommend antiperspirants. And they often prescribe antiperspirants that contain high levels of aluminum salts. For example, Dr. Gabriele Weichert of Synergy Medical Aesthetics in Nanaimo, BC recommends antiperspirants with “a high concentration of aluminum chloride, or better yet, aluminum hexahydrate 20–30%.”
She notes that alternative products that use more natural ingredients may also be effective. These products contain potassium alum salts, or crystals, and baking soda as main ingredients.
Dr. Jeffrey Fromowitz, a dermatologist practicing in Boca Raton, FL, also recommends antiperspirants rather than deodorants, and suggests that patients who are worried about harsh chemicals can use all-natural products, like those available from Tom’s of Maine.
Should Antiperspirants Be Used Overnight?
Some people wonder whether or not antiperspirants should be applied before bed. In fact, many dermatologists recommend doing so.
“It’s the time we sweat the least and gives the product the best chance of working,” explains Dr. Fromowitz. Dr. Weichert agrees: “The higher-strength ingredients are meant to be used overnight, sometimes for 3 nights in a row then 2 times a week to maintain. This leads to higher effectiveness.” In addition, antiperspirants work best when applied to dry skin.
Do Antiperspirants Expire?
If an antiperspirant appears to have stopped working, could it have expired? “Since the active ingredient is an inert salt, there is a long expiry,” clarifies Dr. Weichert, adding that ineffectiveness more likely means that a different approach is needed.
Expiry is unlikely to affect the product’s efficacy, and it won’t make it unsafe. Still, in some cases buying a new antiperspirant may be a good idea. “If it’s a liquid roll-on product, there can be bacterial contamination after 2–3 years and the product should be replaced. It will keep working, but there may be a spoiled odor to the product.”
Do Antiperspirants Have Side Effects?
The most common side effect from antiperspirants is irritation. People with sensitive skin may develop a rash, especially if using a high-concentration product. Dr. Weichert says that allergic reactions are definitely a possibility, noting that “common culprits are the fragrance, propylene glycol, and preservative components.”
While a rash or a possible allergic reaction likely wouldn’t keep most people from using an antiperspirant, they may still worry about long-term effects. Here, aluminum and parabens are the main sources of anxiety.
Aluminum in Antiperspirants: Is It a Real Danger?
As a way to suppress sweat glands, antiperspirants often use aluminum compounds, which have had worrying associations with both Alzheimer’s and cancer. However, no scientific study has yet shown that aluminum-based antiperspirants increase the risk of developing either disease.
One study examined the body’s absorption of aluminum from antiperspirants and found that only a tiny fraction (0.012%) of aluminum was absorbed, far less in fact than what would commonly be ingested from food over the same time period. This suggests that even if further research found a link between aluminum exposure and disease, it’s uncertain whether or not antiperspirants in particular would pose a significant risk.
Yet despite the lack of evidence, fear persists. For that reason it’s worthwhile to look more closely at what experts currently know.
Do Antiperspirants Cause Breast Cancer?
Some have expressed concern about a possible link between antiperspirants and breast cancer. But researchers have not been able to show that any danger exists.
A 2005 study published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry showed that aluminum interfered with the normal action of estrogen, a female hormone that has been seen to cause breast cells to grow and divide. And in 2016, a study published in the International Journal of Cancer tested the effect of aluminum salts and found that prolonged exposure led to tumor growth the breast tissue of mice.
But because the study was done on mice, the results are inconclusive. Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest breast cancer research charity, responded to this study by saying that “Studies investigating antiperspirant or deodorant use in women have consistently shown no good evidence of a link to breast cancer.”
The National Cancer Institute agrees, stating that there is “no clear evidence showing that the use of aluminum-containing underarm antiperspirants (…) increases the risk of breast cancer.” This conclusion is echoed by the American Cancer Society and the FDA.
Antiperspirants and Lymph Nodes: Are There Dangers?
Because antiperspirants are applied to the armpit—in close proximity to lymph nodes and breast tissue—some people fear that aluminum could accumulate there and lead to breast cancer.
Antiperspirants prevent the body from sweating, the thinking goes, leaving high concentrations of toxins in the lymph nodes, eventually causing the cells to mutate.
This fear is however scientifically unfounded, as explained by the American Cancer Society. While it’s true that lymph nodes help the body remove bacteria, viruses, and other threats, they are not connected to the sweat glands (which are located in the skin). Most cancer-causing toxins are removed from blood by the kidneys and the liver in urine and feces, not in sweat.
Parabens and the Cancer Scare
Parabens are preservatives found in some deodorants and antiperspirants. They have been shown to mimic the activity of estrogen. Estrogen, as we’ve said, plays a role in the growth of both normal and cancerous cells.
In 2004, a small study found some parabens in breast tumors. This led to speculation that they may play a role in the development of the disease. However, there is currently no evidence of a causal relationship.
Although parabens have some properties similar to those of estrogen, the body’s estrogens are hundreds to many thousands of times stronger. It’s therefore uncertain whether or not parabens have any significant biological effect.
As the American Cancer Society notes, most people are exposed to parabens. Studies have found them in the urine of up to 99% of Americans. They are commercially widespread, found in products like shampoo, cosmetics, and even food. It’s impossible to know exactly how much antiperspirants contribute to that overall exposure.
Scientists have not yet found a direct link between parabens and disease. Moreover, most major brands of antiperspirants and deodorants do not contain them. Nonetheless, concerned consumers can easily avoid products that contain parabens, as the FDA requires that they be listed as ingredients on packaging.
Can Antiperspirants Cause Dementia or Alzheimer’s?
An early study of Alzheimer’s discovered high levels of aluminum in the brains of some test subjects. But the reason for this yet unknown.
Dr. Frey notes that this original study has never been replicated, adding that “to date, there is no scientific evidence that correlates antiperspirant usage with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Consensus on this issue is widespread, shared by the World Health organization, US National Institutes of Health, US Environmental Protection Agency, and Health Canada.
Should I Use Antiperspirants When Pregnant or Breastfeeding?
If you’re concerned about using any product while pregnant, you should always consult a pediatrician. Antiperspirants pose no proven risk to mother or child. Still, expectant mothers may prefer to be cautious and could consider making changes to their cosmetic routine during this time.
“Antiperspirants are considered category C in pregnancy and breastfeeding,” says Dr. Weichert. “Since a small amount of aluminum can enter the skin, there is a theoretical (but unproven) risk to the child. Women concerned about this exposure should avoid use when pregnant or breastfeeding.”
Antiperspirant Fears Currently Unfounded
It’s always possible that a new discovery could change our understanding of commonly-used chemicals. But as it stands today, there is no evidence that the regular use of antiperspirants is connected to any long-term negative effect.
However, not all products work in the same way for all users. If an antiperspirant causes skin irritation or proves ineffective, ask your dermatologist to suggest another option.
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