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Deodorants and cancer

Antiperspirant/deodorant aerosol spray canYou may have heard rumours that deodorants and antiperspirants could cause breast cancer. But these concerns were started by an e-mail hoax. There is no convincing evidence that antiperspirants and deodorants cause breast cancer.

For example, a large study in 2002 looked for links between antiperspirant use and breast cancer in 1,500 women. The researchers found that neither antiperspirants nor deodorants increased breast cancer risk.

An email hoax

The original e-mail claimed that antiperspirants stop your body from sweating out poisons. It suggested that these toxins build up in the lymph glands under the arm and cause breast cancer.

But the details of this are wrong. Breast cancers start in the breast and only later spread to lymph glands. Your body also has several ways of getting rid of toxins, and while sweating is one of them, it is a different system to the lymph glands.

Parabens and breast tumours

Another study found traces of parabens, a chemical found in some deodorants, in some breast tumours. Parabens is similar to oestrogen, the human hormone that can increase the risk of breast cancer at high levels.

But parabens is much weaker than oestrogen itself and any effects it has are likely to be overwhelmed by natural oestrogen produced in our body, or similar chemicals found in our diet.

Finding parabens in tumours is a far cry from saying that it causes breast cancer. To do that, scientists would need to compare levels in breast tumours to "safe" thresholds, to levels in healthy body cells, or to levels in healthy people without cancer. These studies have not been done.

In fact, breast tumours have large blood supplies and are likely to contain traces of anything that finds its way into our bloodstream. And besides, most modern deodorants are parabens-free.

Aluminium in deodorants

There is no evidence that aluminium in deodorants could increase the risk of cancer in animals or humans.

A small study in 17 women with breast cancer was quite widely reported in the news in 2007. It found higher levels of aluminium in the part of the breast nearest the skin, and the authors speculated that aluminium in deodorants might cause breast cancer.

But the design of this study was not strong enough to draw that conclusion. For a start, it looked at a very small number of women. And as with studies on parabens, the researchers did not compare levels of aluminium in these womens' breasts to level in other parts of their bodies, or to levels in women who do not have breast cancer.

So on balance, there is still no strong evidence for a link. You can read more about aluminium, deodorants and breast cancer on our Science Update blog.

Some cancer units advise women not to use deodorants containing aluminium salts before going for breast screening. This is not because aluminium salts are dangerous, but because they can obscure the results of screening tests. This can make breast cancers harder to detect.

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Updated: 16 March 2010