No sweat

A recent e-mail is scaring women away from antiperspirants.

Published May 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"The leading cause of breast cancer is the use of antiperspirant," says the e-mail that popped up in my in-box not too long ago. Playing on women's fears, the e-mail has been circulating on the Internet, warning that this seemingly benign daily activity can be putting them at risk for one of the most common cancers among women.

The concept is easy to buy into because there is so little known about breast cancer, and also because the e-mail (source unclear, subject line "Breast cancer research we need to know about") includes lines like, "PLEASE pass this along to anyone you care about ... This awareness may save lives." The message claims that by using antiperspirant, which inhibits sweating, the body loses its ability to purge its toxins, and so they become deposited in the lymph nodes. This buildup, it says, leads to cell mutations, which lead to breast cancer. It also stresses that deodorant, which stops body odor and allows perspiration, is OK.

Never heard of the breast cancer-antiperspirant connection before? Well, neither have doctors. Dr. Michael Thun, who heads the American Cancer Society's research on epidemiology, says "Human imagination has never been short of creative explanations for phenomena that people are frightened of." He continues, "I think that it is a clever rumor that has some appeal because breast tissue obviously goes into a woman's armpit and because a lot of people use antiperspirant. It's like saying, 'Hats cause baldness.'"

While there is still not a lot known about what causes breast cancer, researchers do know that it is caused by damage to the genes in cells that control growth. Thun says it will be far more beneficial to learn about known risk factors -- obesity after menopause, alcohol consumption -- and to have regular mammograms than to worry about antiperspirants.

According to Dr. Mervyn Elgart, clinical professor of dermatology at George Washington University, there isn't a danger of building up toxins if you use antiperspirants. "If you don't sweat enough, the toxic stuff will basically come out the kidney, meaning you pee it out," he says. The e-mail's explanation is, to Elgart, "a bunch of crap." Elgart, who has studied sweating, says the worst thing that can happen by using antiperspirants is a little irritation of the skin, and perhaps, some damage to clothing.

A related fear is an old one, about the possible link between an active ingredient in many antiperspirants, aluminum chloride, and Alzheimer's disease. Amy Graves, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health, has done research on the subject and says there's no proof to this hypothesis, especially when it comes to antiperspirants, since they contain such small amounts of aluminum. She adds, "Aluminum is the third most common element on earth so essentially everybody is exposed to it. It's not an easy thing to study from an epidemiologist's perspective because you need to find people who are exposed and not exposed -- and nobody is unexposed." But as far as antiperspirant is concerned, she is not concerned. She herself remains dry by using products with aluminum.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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