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Remember the e-mails that circulated several years ago about deodorants being linked to breast cancer? It didn’t take long for that information to be declared a hoax. But was it? 

Dr. James W. Coleman, researcher on the epidemiology of breast cancer in Louisville, KY, stated, “Iimmediately thereafter, spokespersons for the major breast cancer organizations with financial ties to the cosmetic industry made statements aimed at debunking that information.” 

Research recently published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology suggests there might be an element of truth in this claim. A study headed by Dr. Philippa Darbre, cancer researcher at the University of Reading, UK, looked at 20 human breast tumours and found parabens (synthetic antimicrobial agents used as cosmetic preservatives) in 18 of them. Dr. Darbre wrote, “Finding these chemicals in human breast tumours does matter, because we know from other studies that they can mimic the way estrogen works to drive the growth of cancer.” 

Parabens: A Hidden Danger? 

Parabens are also found in cosmetics such as foaming cleansers,; body mists and lotions,; lipsticks, body, hand, and facial creams, and shower gels. They are also used industrially in oils, fats, shoe polish, and glues. The parabens found in the tumours were ester bearing. This indicates that they came from skin absorption, such as from an underarm deodorant, cream, or body spray. 

"One would expect tumours to occur evenly, with 20 percent arising in each of the five areas of the breast," Darbre says. "But these results help explain why up to 60 percent of all breast tumours are found in just one-fifth of the breast–the upper-outer quadrant, nearest the underarm." 

Up until now, the cosmetics industry has insisted that deodorant chemicals cannot be absorbed through the skin, and that if they were, they would be rapidly metabolized and excreted. They also claim that physiologically, it would be very hard for the chemicals to penetrate to the breast, as lymph glands usually clear away any toxins. 

"It is not possible to say whether parabens actually caused these tumours, but they may certainly be associated with the overall rise in breast cancer cases," says Philip Harvey, editor of theJournal of Applied Toxicology, which published the research. While Harvey notes that the results should be interpreted with caution, he says the findings show that these estrogenic chemicals, detected in the breast, are absorbed through the skin. 

What Else is in Your Deodorant? 

Dr. Darbre has carried out other studies which looked at aluminum and zirconium contained in the deodorants, materials, that could have an effect on the DNA controlling cancer growth. 
Parabens aside, let’s take a look at some of other ingredients that can be found in most underarm cosmetics:

  • Aluminum salts ( which prevent sweating by clogging pores), have been associated with a risk of Alzheimer’s dementia, and may have an effect on DNA.
  • BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), (a synthetic preservative), is a suspected carcinogen that may cause reproductive damage.
  • Propylene glycol, (an emulsifier and carrier), has been known to cause lactic (an accumulation of acid waste in the cells) and , may cause birth defects.
  • Talc (a filler and moisture reducer), was reported to cause tumours in animal subjects by the US National Toxicology Program.
  • Synthetic fragrances, 95 percent of which are compounds derived from petroleum, may be linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, and allergic reactions.
  • Triclosan, (a synthetic antibacterial agent) can be converted to dioxin when exposed to sunlight in water.

Deodorants contain a virtual cocktail of questionable ingredients that we are applying to our bodies at least once a day. Is it any wonder that doctors recommend the immediate cessation of anti-perspirants to cancer patients and request they seek more natural alternatives.? 

“What is the main contributor, at the end? I don’t know,” Darbre says. “But they probably all play their role.” 

Shaving and Deodorant Use 

Another study, by Chicago doctor Kris McGrath of Northwestern University, also suggests a possible link between deodorants and breast cancer, but only together with underarm shaving. His study divided 437 breast cancer patients into four groups depending on how often they shaved and applied deodorant. Those who shaved at least three times a week and applied deodorant at least twice a week were almost 15 years younger when diagnosed with breast cancer than women who did neither. 

Should we stop applying these ingredients to our armpits? How can we minimize our exposure to environmental toxins? Should we be just as concerned about what we are putting on our bodies as in them? 

The good news is that there are natural alternatives out there. Check your local health food stores for paraben- and aluminum- free deodorant’s. Keep in mind that some “natural” deodorants may still contain propylene glycol.