Health Effects of the Environment: Questions and Answers
I just received an e-mail about the danger of antiperspirants. The woman who wrote says her physician told her this. She says that they have been found to be the cause of most breast cancer. This is supposed to be because they interfere with our bodies' ability to sweat away toxins, so they deposit in the lymph nodes. She says it's OK to wear deodorant, but we should not wear antiperspirant. Is this true?
--CC, Memphis, TN
This is NOT true. A thorough on-line search at the university medical center library of both the medical literature, and the alternative and complementary medicine literature, found only one published article on this topic in the past 35 years (1)*. So there is absolutely NO research to even suggest that antiperspirants are a possible cause of cancer.
*Numbers in parentheses refer to references listed in the Environment Q&A section on our References page.
The one article I found was on the Harvard Women's Health Watch newsletter's Q&A page, and is an answer to the same question raised here. Apparently, this e-mail has been circulating for at least two years. The physician who wrote that article stated that there had been such concern about this topic that the American Cancer Society began a Web page in May, 1999, to answer women's questions about the rumor. The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the Food and Drug Administration have all stated that there is NO scientific evidence that using antiperspirant or deodorant results in any increase in breast cancer risk.
Antiperspirant/deodorant combinations are classified as both a cosmetic and a drug, and as such are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. They must be scientifically proven safe and effective to be marketed to consumers. Furthermore, if complaints of adverse reactions are submitted to the FDA, they will collect samples and conduct a thorough independent investigation.
For more information on FDA regulation of cosmetics and combined cosmetics/drugs, see "Clearing up Cosmetic Confusion" at the FDA Web site.
The rumored "science" behind the claim is a little wonky. There would really be no reason for toxins to settle into the lymph nodes. Our circulatory system routinely takes toxins through the liver and the kidneys, and we process them into harmless substances and excrete them. Perspiration primarily functions to cool us off, and although there are a few minerals and perhaps toxins in sweat, this is because they happen to already be present in our body fluids as they circulate through. Also, you do not stop sweating entirely while using antiperspirant, or you might overheat. So the body still has plenty of opportunity to rid itself of toxins via several avenues. It is reasonable not to use antiperspirants on freshly shaved skin, but this would be more to avoid a sensitivity or allergic reaction, than any concern with absorbing carcinogens.
As for breast cancer, the known causes and contributing factors include genetics (often indicated by family history), female gender, advancing age, and probably a high-fat diet and/or obesity. Of course, some people end up with breast cancer despite a complete lack of any known risk factors, but chances are much higher with any of the above. The best plan to address breast cancer risk is to conduct monthly self-examinations, have yearly examinations by a knowledgeable physician, and undergo mammograms as recommended by that physician. That way if a problem is discovered, it is likely to be early enough for relatively mild treatment to take care of the problem. Knowing the lifestyle changes you can make to decrease your risk, and what to do to make sure that any cancer is caught early, is the best protection you can have.
I recently shopped for talc and had a hard time finding it, and the salesperson said that's because it causes cancer. Is this true? If so, why hasn't it been pulled off the market entirely?
--SQ, Memphis, TN
This rumor at least has a little scientific support backing it up, but please read on before throwing away your talc products. I still intend to use mine.
Talc has been linked to a higher risk for ovarian and possibly uterine cancer, but only when used in the area of the perineum (2,4,6,8,10,15,16). This is the area of skin that reaches from the genitalia to the anus. Apparently, some women have used talc on their sanitary pads or in their underwear. Although the evidence does not support a definite link between talc and cancer when used this way, I would recommend avoiding using it in this area, but it is probably okay to use it elsewhere.
Why is there not a definite link, if there is a correlation? For one thing, the correlation is not definitely proved, some studies show no correlation or at most a very weak correlation between talc use and ovarian cancer (4,14,15). Furthermore, one study showed that women who use talc in the perineal area are more likely to smoke (11). Since cigarette smoking increases the risk of every type of cancer, it may be the fact that these women are more likely to be smokers that raises the risk of cancer, not the places they are using talc.
Talc can cause a sensitivity or allergic reaction, and it is possible that at least some nonsmokers have avoided cigarettes because they are sensitive to a variety of non-natural chemicals, and so likewise avoid using talc on sensitive skin. Thus, the talc may have nothing to do with the increased cancer risk associated with its use on relatively sensitive skin. But it is easy to use it safely, since there have been NO reports of increased cancer risk when talc is used on other areas of the body.
There are some reports of breathing difficulties if talc is inhaled, so it is also a good idea to try not to inhale the dust. But there are no reports of increased lung cancer risk, even in studies of workers who mine talc, whose lungs are exposed to far more talc than a cosmetic user's would be (3,13). But again, potential problems can be easily avoided.
Talc may even play a role in decreasing cancer risk. It is used medically in certain procedures involving the lungs (1,5), the details of which are beyond our scope here. However, one experimental study found that talc can kill lung cancer cells (9), while leaving normal lung cells unaffected. Talc may, therefore, have some benefits in the fight against cancer that have not been fully exploited yet.
In short, when using talc, it is probably a good idea to keep it away from the perineal area, and other potentially sensitive mucous membranes, and avoid breathing in the dust. Otherwise, on intact skin, it should not cause any problems. If you find you have an allergic or sensitivity reaction to it, of course, then it makes sense to avoid using it.
Talc has not been pulled off the market because it continues to be considered a generally recognized as safe substance, when used as directed. So be sure to follow the package directions, and those mentioned here, and you can feel reasonably safe using it.
If you decide not to use talc, please be aware that it is important to dry thoroughly after showering. Damp areas are susceptible to rashes and Candida infections (7,12), which can be irritating and painful. So talc may even be beneficial to your health. Just be sure to use as directed.
If you have further questions on these or any other health topics, please e-mail us and let us know!
This page was last updated on 04/23/03.