Will My Deodorant Give Me Cancer?

by egndukwe on November 28, 2012

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m sure some if not all of you have heard mention that antiperspirants and deodorants can cause breast cancer. Truthfully, I heard this awhile back and since then, a little part of me has cringed every time I put on deodorant, wondering if I was continuously increasing my risk for cancer. So will using deodorant give you cancer? Unfortunately, for those who looking for a definitive yes or no, the results up to this point have been inconclusive.

The initial research on this topic suggested that two particular ingredients in antiperspirants and deodorants—parabens and aluminum based compounds—are responsible for the products’ link to breast cancer. The active ingredient in many deodorants is often one of several aluminum-based compounds.  These compounds function by preventing sweat from reaching the surface of the skin. Previous research has suggested that some aluminum-based compounds can interfere with the proper functioning of hormones within the body and eventually disrupt the normal expression of genes, factors that may ultimately lead to the development of cancer.

Additional research has focused on the link between parabens and breast cancer. A study performed in 2004 found that out of 20 samples of human breast cancer tissue, 18 of the samples contained parabens. Parabens are low cost, highly effective preservatives that have long been used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Other researchers have argued the extent to which these findings should be completely accepted, citing the fact that the presence of parabens in breast cancer tissue does not necessarily imply that the parabens in deodorants and antiperspirants are the cause. Additionally, this study did not consider whether parabens were also found in healthy non-cancerous tissues of the body.

In an attempt to refute some of the arguments against the research, researchers completed a similar study, releasing the results in 2012. In this study, breast tissues collected from the mastectomies of 40 women were analyzed. Of the 160 tissue samples that were taken, parabens were found in 158 samples. Although this study acknowledged that they could not identify the source of the parabens, 7 of the 40 women sampled reported that they had never used deodorants or antiperspirants—suggesting that the parabens were coming from another source.

Contrasting with the research suggesting that there is a link between underarm products and breast cancer, are studies that argue that there is no link. In 2002, researchers interviewed 813 patients with breast cancer and 793 women without breast cancer. Results showed that women who used a deodorant or antiperspirant did not have an increased risk for breast cancer. Although smaller in size, another study which published results in 2006, again found no link between breast cancer and the use of deodorants or antiperspirants.

The reports suggesting that underarm products were linked to cancer caused so much alarm that several organizations within the medical and health information community published their views that there is no conclusive evidence linking breast cancer to the use of underarm products. Organizations included the National Cancer Institute and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation among others. Providing additional relief is the fact that in today’s cosmetic market, many major brands have removed parabens from their underarm products.

Overall, current literature shows that more research needs to be done before it can be conclusively determined that underarm products are not linked to the development of breast cancer. In the mean time as with many other consumer products that have been found to contain toxic ingredients, the important takeaway for me is moderation. Being aware of the ingredients in our products can help us as consumers make informed decisions about the products we use every single day. For me, deodorant is an indispensable part of my hygiene regimen, but with this in mind I will make the effort to ensure that other products I use include more natural ingredients in order to minimize my long term exposure to toxins.

Tom November 28, 2012 at 11:59 am

So are parabens and aluminum-based ingredients found in both deodorants and anti-antiperspirants?

egndukwe November 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Hi Tom,

Many major brands have removed parabens from their underarm products, however aluminum-based compounds are still the active ingredient in many. But because each product is different, it’s best to check the ingredients on your products to be sure.

Thanks for reading!

David Bradley November 28, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I’m afraid this deodorant-cancer story is old and has been debunked several times over the years. Tiny studies, nothing conclusive, only one team, based on claims made in spam emails years ago that were shown to be nonsense well before Darbre.


Ed Yong November 28, 2012 at 12:32 pm

This is a thin, disappointing piece on a topic that has been written about time and again.

You write: “Unfortunately, for those who looking for a definitive yes or no, the results up to this point have been inconclusive.” This is misleading and an example of false balance. The fact that some studies say yes, and others say no does not make the result “inconclusive”. There is *bugger all* good evidence that deodorants affect the risk of cancer. The studies that say so come from a single team – a fact you neglect – that has a track record of poorly conceived experiments, and whose work has been debunked again and again.

And the end bit: “…include more natural ingredients in order to minimize my long term exposure to toxins.” Really? This is silly chemophobia. Talk of “natural” ingredients as if they were intrinsically safer, and blanked mention of nameless “toxins” is misleading and unhelpful.

Here’s a better take: http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2007/08/31/breast-cancer-deodorants-or-the-no-links-effect/

egndukwe November 28, 2012 at 9:07 pm

Hi Ed and David,

When writing this piece I envisioned 3 groups of readers: those who have never heard of the suggested link between cancer and deodorant, those who have heard of the link but are unaware of the arguments against, those who have heard of the link as well as the arguments against. It is clear you both fall into the third category, however this piece was intended for those in the first two groups. Additionally, the most recent information on this subject was published in January of this year, which suggests that there is still at least a modest amount of interest in this topic.

Ed, as this piece focuses on two particular toxins particular to deodorants, I did not feel it was necessary or appropriate to dive into a discussion of other toxins and avoidance methods in other consumer products, however this has been a common theme in many of my posts this semester so for more information please feel free to reference some of my earlier pieces.

Thank you for your comments!

Henry November 28, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Thanks for linking to that Ed. I’d just like to add that it’s headline is the headline I am most proud of in my *entire career*.

That is all.


Laura November 28, 2012 at 8:53 pm

I love the “no links effect” – great title! However I think there is a middle ground between chemophobia and I suppose a lack of attention to the environmental effects. As we appreciate subtypes of breast cancer (based on receptor status or even somatic profiles), we can more precisely define risk associated with these subtypes. The linked blog references estrogen from fat cells as promoting breast cancer; many toxicants mimic estrogen or bind hormone responsive elements. I would argue that few studies have precise enough exposure assessment on large enough numbers of women to draw strong conclusions. So while this blog probably overstated the case a bit for me (as someone who had to answer this question a bit too much from relatives who wanted to know whether to wear deodorant – yes, please do) I do think we need to be more attentive to potential risks associated with biologically relevant toxicants, particularly during crucial windows of vulnerability.

Andrew Maynard November 28, 2012 at 9:25 pm

David and Ed,

Thanks for your feedback – especially Ed whom I asked specifically to comment here. In light of this being an instructional blog where the aim is to learn from experience, I thought it worth providing my critique here – I typically provide this in private to the students, but on this occasion I think it will help indicate how a constructive approach can help strengthen analytic and communication skills, without discouraging risk-taking.

First a bit of context though. This is a blog that is overtly a sandbox for students to publicly experiment in as they develop their communication skills – they are not experts at this, but share a common desire to learn from feedback from others. Some of the writers are in their early 20’s, which means that they don’t have the historic knowledge or cultural context of more seasoned writers – some of the class would have only been in their early teens when the early Darbre papers were published, and would not have been sensitized to overblown coverage in the media. In many ways, they are untainted by previous battles, and as a result provide a fresh perspective on issues – one that readers may not always like, but nevertheless one that has merit because of its context. As public health students, they are also taught to respect peer review literature, and to be cautious about dismissing publications in peer review journals without good cause. And given the nature of the course, they are being stretched to make often-inaccessible science accessible to a broad audience under very tough time constraints.

None of this means that demonstrations for room for improvement should be ignored – quite the contrary. But I do hope that it means that people will read and respond to the writing in a spirit of helping improve the skills and ability of the writer, while being mindful of their own prejudices and cultural context.

So to my feedback on the piece to Ezinne:

This is a contentious topic to take on that has a long history of misinformation and strong opinion behind it. In tackling such a topic, it’s always worth getting a sense of where the controversial and emotive points are so that you can tackle them with open eyes – and working out what story the research tells before starting to write. That said, your opening paragraph has an engaging tone of authenticity – here you are effectively engaging your audience by honestly asking a question others will have asked. I like the way that the paragraph sets up the piece, and provides the essence of your summary. However, there is a question over the conclusion you reach here – as I discuss below.

The paragraph introducing the two “villains” of the piece – aluminum based compounds and paragons – is very brief. As your focus is on deodorants, it makes sense to include the aluminum compounds here, but at the same time, without more information and analysis, it leaves the reader with an incomplete picture.

The first paragraph on parabens is very light. But it does capture (albeit very concisely) some of the main points of early research – that paragons were discovered in breast tissue, but that there was no evidence for a causative link between paragons and breast cancer, and paragons and deodorant use. What would have been helpful is more of the science on why paragons are suspected of being linked to cancer in the first place.

The following paragraph brings us up to date with the 2012 study that indicates the presence of paragons in breast tissue from mastectomies is associated with sources other than underarm products. Here, you could have been more analytic in developing the story – the research from this one group shows that it doesn’t seem to be underarm products that lead to paragons in breast tissue, and there still isn’t a link between parabens and breast cancer.

You then go on to balance the story with research that seemingly contradicts the previous studies. Here you fall into an easy but important trap of setting up a straw idea that isn’t actually supported by the work cited – that there is a link between underarm products and breast cancer. The more defensible story here is that although research had flagged a possible association between underarm products, parabens in breast tissue and cancer, the 2002 and 2006 studies did not find a link.

the following paragraph strengthens this, with links to information that clearly present the state of the science on the parabens-breast cancer association. However, there is still that hint that you are hooked on the parabens are possibly dangerous narrative, and are loathe to let it go :-)

This then comes out in the final paragraph where you imply that there is some doubt over the safety of underarm products still. But the red flag to many readers here would have been your focus on “more natural” ingredients as you are immediately tapping into heuristic that will lead some readers to assume you are falling into the “chemicals are not natural” error. Again, I think that the personal perspective brings authenticity to the piece, but care with language is important -especially when handling a contentious topic.

Two final comments: The story you set out to tell in a piece like this is significant, and it is important that it is aligned with the evidence. Making sure you are clear on what story the research tells before writing a piece is an enormous help in avoiding being tempted to align research to the story you want to tell. This is a trap that it’s easy to fall into without realizing it by the way. And also make sure you think about weight of evidence when comparing studies, not just quantity and presence of research.

A great learning post!

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