September 2004 | ChoiceHealth

The Nagging Connection Between Breast Cancer & Deodorant Use

by Rebecca Ephraim

Kris McGrath’s wife, Elaine, applied antiperspirant deodorant to her underarms as part of her daily routine — just as millions of us do every morning while getting dressed. McGrath believes it was this “lifestyle habit” coupled with underarm shaving that was the main cause of his 35-year-old wife’s breast cancer and death in 1989. He suspects the same thing happened to his mother who also died of breast cancer.

Kris McGrath is not just another questioning consumer; McGrath is an M.D., an associate professor of clinical medicine at Chicago’s Northwestern University’s medical school, heads up the allergy-immunology department at a Chicago hospital and maintains a thriving private practice. He has long suspected that there’s a link between the use of deodorants/antiperspirants and breast cancer. “I’ve been working on this for over 15 years,” McGrath recounts. “You get no support, no interest and it seems pretty straightforward that research needs to be done. I don’t understand that.”

In fact, McGrath is one of just a handful of researchers in the entire world who have published studies on the connection. Given the strong, although sparse, emerging evidence that is framing a correlation between breast cancer and the use of deodorants, it’s remarkable that research dollars are not being poured into financing studies on this issue.

Since med school, McGrath, 51, has suspected a connection. But it was Elaine’s death that led him to design, launch and self-fund a study on the potential correlation between deodorant use and breast cancer. McGrath’s results, which found that breast cancer rates were highest among those who most frequently shaved their underarms and applied deodorant, was published by the European Journal of Cancer Prevention last December. “It’s very expensive to do this kind of research,” says McGrath. “I’d love to do more work but I’d have to pursue more money to fund it.”

McGrath’s study is one of only about five that have been conducted in the last two years on the deodorant-breast cancer relationship. McGrath’s study included underarm shaving because shaving causes small nicks and cuts in the skin, which he found facilitates the absorption of toxic ingredients from deodorants. All but one of the other studies — in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, in October 2002 — have suggested a possible relationship.

Most recently, last June, the European editor of the Journal of Applied Toxicology along with a leading researcher on the subject, authored an exhaustive “Review of Evidence and Call for Further Research” stating, “The exposure issues are clear and the exposed population is large, and these factors should provide the necessary impetus to investigate this potential issue of public health.”

Consider the following facts, which, when examined collectively, put an urgent emphasis on conducting further research:

* A female born in the U.S. today has a one in seven chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer during her life.

* When all known risk factors, including family history, genetics, smoking and obesity are added together, more then 50 percent of breast cancer cases remain unexplained.

* A disproportionately high incidence of breast cancer occurs in the area where deodorants are applied — as one scientist describes it, “in the upper outer quadrant of the breast.”

* Deodorants and antiperspirants contain a cocktail of diverse chemicals known to exert a variety of toxic effects. They include aluminum salts, parabens (p-hydroxybenzoic acid), phthalates, butylated hydroxytoluene and dozens of other multi-syllabic scientific names that have not been studied for safety.

* Ninety percent of the population regularly uses deodorants or antiperspirants.

British researchers have done most of the studies and research reviews on the possible connection. Overall, Europe is way ahead of North America in recognizing the danger of the toxic chemicals used in conventional cosmetics. As of this month, a directive by the European Union (E.U.) requires companies doing business in Europe to reformulate their cosmetic products to eliminate all chemicals known or strongly suspected of causing cancers, mutations or birth defects; this, of course, includes deodorants.

A coalition of public interest groups in the U.S. is waging “The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics,” ( calling on consumers to sign a petition and take other actions in order to get the same ban. One of the coalition groups, The Breast Cancer Fund (TBCF), based in San Francisco, is dedicated to identifying links between chemical exposures and breast cancer. TBCF executive director Jeanne Rizzo laments that the lobbying power of the cosmetic and chemical industry is frustrating progress toward this end. “It’s commerce ... the chemistry council, the phthalate esters panel [a trade group], the cosmetics industry, that’s where the resistance is. They’ve been saying for a long time that these chemicals are safe; they’ve been saying that even in response to the E.U. ban. They’re not going to ban them in the United States because, one, there are no laws requiring it and, two, there’s no public demand.”

Why no public demand? Mainly because, for consumers, the immediate cause-and-effect connection isn’t there, according to Rizzo. “Nobody’s going to use a deodorant that’s going to rip your skin off. But these products have a low-dose, long-term, cumulative, aggregated effect ... and so there’s not the will to change and consumers don’t make the demand,” she says. “If a product doesn’t kill you the minute you roll it on, doesn’t make you sick, you don’t throw up, your arm doesn’t burn, it’s OK. That’s the approach.” Deodorants are of particular concern as they are “leave on” products. Day-in-and-day-out, we slather deodorant on our underarms leaving it to absorb into the skin.

Despite his concern over this issue, Dr. Kris McGrath is circumspect about the time it will take to put reforms in place — noting the long struggle it took to establish the link between tobacco and cancer. Meantime, he says his family members are now using more natural products and not applying them right after shaving.

Rebecca Ephraim is a registered dietitian and certified clinical nutritionist.


The Breast Cancer Fund:

Harvey P W & Darbre P, Endocrine disrupters and human health: could [estrogenic] chemicals in body care cosmetics adversely affect breast cancer incidence in women? Journal of Applied Toxicology, vol 24, pg 167 (2004).

McGrath K G, An earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis related to more frequent use of antiperspirants/deodorants and underarm shaving. European Journal of Cancer Prevention, vol 12; pg 479 (2004).

Mirick, D K et al, Antiperspirant use and the risk of breast cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, vol 94, No. 20, pg 1578, (2002).

Tour Your Bathroom Cabinet

Find out what’s known about the potential health risks from the personal care products you use every day and learn about safer options. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers a toxic tour of your bathroom cabinet at: where you simply plug in the names of your body care products to get the lowdown on what exactly it is you’re smearing on your body.

According to 2000 Food and Drug Administration statistics, 89 percent of the 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety by regulatory agencies or review panels, or anyone else. In fact, according to an EWG report, one of every 100 products on the market contains ingredients certified by government authorities as known or probable human carcinogens, including shampoos, lotions, make-up foundations and lip balms.

This material is for information only and no part of its content should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsemen


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