By Rachael Flynn, MPH and Sarah Miller, RN
Updated June 2010
Do Antiperspirants Cause Breast Cancer?
A widely circulating e-mail article claims that antiperspirant use causes breast cancer. The e-mail says that since antiperspirants prevent your body from sweating out toxins, the toxins then build up in your lymph nodes and result in breast cancer. Some versions of this email attempt to legitimize these claims by providing details, such as names of fictitious experts.
The claims the e-mail makes are NOT correct. There is, however, a valid health concern regarding antiperspirants and deodorants. Antiperspirants and deodorants are on a long list of ordinary products, including many other beauty and self-care products, that contain toxins called phthalates. Phthalates are added to products because they help to moisturize the skin, help absorption of products into the skin, and are sometimes an ingredient in fragances. They are also used in nail polish to prevent chipping1.
Lack of Regulation in Beauty Products
The law greatly restricts the levels of phthalates in the environment. Even a small release into the atmosphere must be reported to the authorities. Although they are recognized environmental pollutants, phthalates are not regulated in beauty or self care products. Neither cosmetic products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by FDA before they are sold to the public.1
It is not known whether phthalates cause cancer, but one study found that women with breast cancer had higher levels of a certain type of phthalate called DEP in their systems.2 This means that the use of products containing DEP (many of which are beauty products) could possibly increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. More studies need to be done, though, to fully understand whether the use of products with phthalates truly increases a person’s cancer risk.
Dangers of Phthalates
Phthalates are endocrine-disruptors, meaning that they interfere with the normal function of the body’s hormones. They interfere especially with estrogen and testosterone. There is evidence that this may contribute to other health problems, such as birth defects, premature female breast development, reproductive system abnormalities, and respiratory problems. 3,4 A mother’s exposure to phthalates could put her fetus at risk for harmful developmental effects and chronic health problems.4
Phthalates are everywhere around us. In addition to self-care products, they are in many everyday plastic items, food containers, common building materials, materials inside cars, and household cleaning products. Because we are surrounded by them, almost everyone who has a blood or urine test for phthalates will be found to have at least some in their system.5 That does not mean that there is nothing to worry about, though. The best thing to do is to limit your exposure as much as possible.
Research Product Ingredients
To find out whether products you use contain phthalates, check the label. Two common phthalates used in beauty products are DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) and DEP (diethyl phthalate). Some products that contain phthalates, however, do not have them listed.6 The Environmental Working Group website (listed below) has lists of products that contain phthalates. In conclusion, the safety of antiperspirants and deodorants, as well as the wide range of other consumer products containing phthalates, is unknown.
It is important to remember that ingredients in consumer products change over time and that not all antiperspirants or deodorants contain phthalates However, a lack of research should not be considered proof of safety. Until future research provides more answers about the effects of phthalates on humans, it is reasonable to question their long-term safety. This is especially true for pregnant women and children.
Related Articles on Our Website:
Five Ways You Can Cut Your Risk of Breast Cancer
For more information about Phthalates on the Web:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Environmental Working Group
1 Houser, R. and Calafat, M., (2005) Phthalates and Human Health. Occup Envoron. Med. 62(11) 806-18.
2 López-Carrillo L, Hernández-Ramírez RU, Calafat AM, Torres-Sánchez L, Galván-Portillo M, Needham LL, Ruiz-Ramos R, Cebrián ME. (2010) Exposure to phthalates and breast cancer risk in northern Mexico. Environ Health Perspect. 118(4):539-44.
3 Swan, S.H., (2008) Environmental Pthalate exposure in relation to reproductive outcomes in humans. Environ. Res. 108(2) pp.177-84.
4 Yiee, J.H., and Baskin, L.S., (2010) Environmental factors in genitourinary development. J.Urol. 184(1) pp. 34-41.
5 Centers for Disease Control (2009) Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental chemicals. Retrieved From: http://www.cdc.gov.fourthreport.pdf
6 Houlihan J and Wiles R. 2000. Beauty Secrets. Does a Common Chemical in Nail Polish Pose Risks to Human Health? Environmental Working Group. Washington, DC. November 2000.