Word travels fast on the Internet. As stories fly from inbox to inbox, they gain momentum and news sometimes blurs with fiction. A few years ago, an email began circulating that gave many readers reason to pause. It read:
"I just got information from a health seminar that I would like to share. The leading cause of breast cancer is the use of antiperspirant. Yes, ANTIPERSPIRANT. Most of the products out there are an anti-perspirant/deodorant combination so go home and check your labels."
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask our experts to answer
readers' questions about a wide range of topics. In our May 2010 issue, we
turned to WebMD's Skin Care Expert, Karyn Grossman, MD, to get advice on
dealing with those pesky little bumps that so many of us have on our upper
Q. I have lots of little bumps on my upper arms -- I don't like going
sleeveless. What are they? Can I get rid of them?
A. Those little bumps are caused by keratosis pilaris, a common skin
The email went on to explain how antiperspirant prevents the body from "purging toxins," which, when trapped, find their way into the lymph nodes, where they concentrate and contribute to the cellular changes that lead to cancer. Meanwhile, on the Web, several sites featured stories about a supposed link between antiperspirants and Alzheimer's disease.
To the millions of Americans who use antiperspirants daily, these e-mails and Web stories came as a big shock. Like many other people, you may have wondered: Is the product I've been applying to my body every day for years really putting my health at risk?
WebMD put the question to several experts, and discovered that the rumors about antiperspirants don't stand up to the science.
The Origins of Antiperspirant Fears
Most antiperspirant worries center on the active ingredient -- an aluminum-based compound that temporarily plugs the sweat ducts and prevents you from perspiring.
Typically, antiperspirants are coupled with a deodorant, which contains the pleasant scent that stops you from stinking. They may also contain a number of inactive ingredients.
Let's look at where the health worries over antiperspirants got their start, and what the research has to say about these products:
Antiperspirants and Cancer
A few studies in recent years have theorized that aluminum-based antiperspirants may increase the risk for breast cancer.
According to the authors of these studies, most breast cancers develop in the upper outer part of the breast -- the area closest to the armpit, which is where antiperspirants are applied. The studies suggest that chemicals in antiperspirants, including aluminum, are absorbed into the skin, particularly when the skin is nicked during shaving. These studies claim that those chemicals may then interact with DNA and lead to cancerous changes in cells, or interfere with the action of the female hormone estrogen, which is known to influence the growth of breast cancer cells.