Native Skeptic

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Friday, May 9, 2014

Have You Ever Heard about the Thing between Deodorant and Cancer?

I recently came across an article by Stephanie Marcus on the Huffington Post featuring Cameron Diaz where she reveals that she has not used antiperspirant for 20 years. It appears there is quite a prolific list of celebrities that subscribe to this more au naturale method of marination. Upon reading this, I recalled a conversation that I had years ago with a co-worker regarding his fears of the chemicals used in many of them as well. This prompted me to ask, where do these fears of antiperspirants and deodorants come from? More importantly, are any of them legitimate?

This all stems from a red carpet interview E! did at the premier to The Other Woman. Last April, E! Online published, Cameron Diaz Hasn't Used 20 Years!, by  Marc Malkin. When the subject of antiperspirants came up, Diaz responded that she did not believe in them and went on to clarify that, "It's really bad for you. I haven't used it for almost 20 years." She then goes on to share many of her other personal views about how she thinks human biology and science work by soliciting some advise from her book, The Body Book. Last January, Kate Dries documented a personal experience reading the book in the article for Jezebel titled, Cameron Diaz's Body Book is Actually Pretty Good, and uses the following quote that Diaz does in her book,

"I'm not a scientist. I'm not a doctor. What I am is a woman who has spent the past fifteen years learning about what my body is capable of, and it has been the most rewarding experience of my life."

Just to be upfront, I am not a scientist or doctor either. However, the major deciding factor that is being overlooked here is scientific literacy. Not all claims are equal in merit and just because something sounds, or seems to be scientific, doesn't mean that it is science or that it's true. When lies and cons are informed by some truth and appeal to our emotions, it makes things cloudy so that being smart isn't good enough. Smart people can make mistakes just like the not-so-smart people can be correct from time to time. Without a good definition of what the process of science is, the less likely you are to have any sense of what it should look like and the likelihood of pseudoscience infiltrating your web browser grows. Smart people fall for not-so-smart things all the time. Sometimes we believe things too, for no good reason. It's not a stretch, or novel, to say people are irrational. But, what's not being said enough is that we need tools to help us with our psychological blindspots and personal biases. That's precisely what critical thinking and science literacy can provide.   

While she doesn't address anything specific or make any sort of definitive claim, she seems to be convinced that what she does know, is that they are "...really bad for you." This prompted me to look just a bit further for myself to see if there is any reason, or evidence, for such concern.

The University Health Network in Toronto, Canada took to the streets last February 4th to promote World Cancer Day and see what people thought about this very question and give them some facts in a special YouTube video they put together titled, Cancer Mythbusters: Antiperspirants and breast cancer.

Anti-perspirants have been identified as the leading cause of breast cancer.

Anti-perspirants have been identified as the leading cause of breast cancer.

Anti-perspirants have been identified as the leading cause of breast cancer.

The specific claim that, anti-antiperspirants have been identified as the leading cause in breast cancer, has been looked at quite thoroughly by one the greatest skeptical tools available online, Snopes. If you are not familiar with this site as a resource, I'd recommend bookmarking it to memory for the next urban myth you come across. 
In 2003, the article titled Misleading Medical Myths Spread Quickly Over Internet was published by NewsOK warning the general public about some medical myths circulating like a chain e-mail at the time. One of the claims that made number two on the list also going out to physicians in an issue of MDnet Guide magazine notifying them about certain urban myths gaining popularity, is the one claiming that anti-perspirants/deodorant cause breast cancer. Apparently, the rumor got bad enough for the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health to respond with this fact sheet about anti-perspirants/deodorant and breast cancer. A key point in the document states, "There is no conclusive research linking the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and the subsequent development of breast cancer." But, there is also another point that completed research studies were inconclusive because they produced conflicting results. Some may interpret that differently. One thing that's for sure is that you can't extrapolate that we know for sure what causes any specific type of cancer from these studies. So, where else might these fears perspire from?

In the 'Health, Wellness, and Hygiene Tips for Body Odor' section of the How Stuff Works website, there is a more than I, and probably you, would ever want to know about body odor in the article titled, How Body Odor Works. The subject of anti-antiperspirants and deodorants comes up five pages in; where it goes through a brief history of deodorant, some science behind it, and a few examples of alternatives. The aforementioned concerns and uncertainties surrounding the safety of aluminum-based deodorants shows up once again in the little informational box that appears on the side of the piece and states the following,      

"The safety of aluminum-based deodorants has been the cause for much debate. Some studies seem to have indicated that antiperspirants can increase breast cancer risks, but according to the National Cancer Institute and FDA, there's no conclusive evidence to tie the two together. Additionally, a study done in the 1960s indicated that there was a higher presence of aluminum in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, which has lead to the persistent belief that antiperspirants can contribute to the disease. However, according to the Alzheimer's Association, studies released since that time have failed to confirm aluminum's role in causing Alzheimer's."

A brief explanation of just what body odor is and some things to do about it, appears on the blog site Science Knowledge under the article titled, Deodorants and Antiperspirants. It also mentions that there are other alternatives which include masking scents and germicides. There is also a funny example going with this telling of how they test antiperspirants with control groups. The post eventually comes around to breaking down the active ingredients to what makes up an antiperspirant, and addresses some of these concerns in the following excerpt,

"Finally, it’s important to address one of the very real risks of antiperspirants. No, it’s not breast cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, despite what you might have read in imaginative email chain letters. For the record, aluminum, the key ingredient in antiperspirants, is the third most common element on our planet, and it’s found in food, air, and over-the-counter medications like antacids, all of which provide more aluminum than you can absorb from an antiperspirant through your skin. Furthermore, the amount of waste your sweat glands excrete is small, so there’s no reason to think that slowing down a few sweat glands can increase the level of toxins in your blood."
The real downsides to antiperspirants appear to be found in their limited application to be effective on certain glands, so they don't "suppress" the smell from "apocrine glands." Based on the evidence gathered, the only dangers that I can determine surrounding this whole subject, are embarrassment from excessive sweating and staining. The amount and the sweat itself can also indicate other health concerns that could be more serious, like diabetes or thyroid disease as well.

The How Stuff Works article had one other gem of advise that stood out to me amongst all the information sifted through,

"Because everyone's body chemistry is different, it may take a bit of experimentation to find a natural deodorant that works for you but the science of making the skin's surface unfriendly to bacteria is sound, and thousands of people use these products successfully every day."

Unfortunately, some people might argue that the research from big organizations like the American Cancer Society, the FDA, or the National Institutes for Health cannot be trusted because they are part of some elaborate umbrella government conspiracy allowing the poisoning of the general public. But, then I might argue that you might have bigger, more urgent problems of concern than the aluminum in your deodorant.


Dries, Kate. 2014. "Cameron Diaz's Body Book is Actually Pretty Good". (Janurary 10) Can be accessed online at:

Franco, Michael. 2010. "How Body Odor Works" (May 4). Accessible online at: Last updated May 9, 2014.

Malkin, Marc. 2014. "Cameron Diaz Hasn't Used 20 Years!". E! Can be accessed online at:

Marcus, Stephanie. 2014. "Cameron Diaz Say She Hasn't Worn Deodorant in 20 Years". Huffington Post. April 24. Can be accessed online at:

Mayo Clinic Staff. 2014. "Sweating and Body Odor: Causes". Mayo Clinic. (Janurary 25). Can be accessed online at:

NewsOK. 2003. "Misleading Medical Myths Spread Quickly Over Internet". (January 7). Can be accessed online at:

National Cancer Institute. 2008. "Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer
". Can be accessed online at:

Snopes. 1999. "Anti-Perspirants and Breast Cancer". Can be accessed online at: Last updated, January 2, 2014.

Science Knowledge. 2010. Deodorants and Antiperspirants. Can be accessed online at:

University Health Network.
2013. "Cancer Mythbusters: Antiperspirants and breast cancer". YouTube. UHNToronto. (January 13). Can be accessed online at:

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