Over the last couple of years there have been a lot of talks whether deodorant cause cancer. All the commercial deodorants contain aluminium, some contain parabens (chemical preservatives) and then at least a couple of other elements that should stay on the Mendeleev’s periodic table rather than on your body. Most of them you wouldn’t be able to pronounce even if you read them letter by letter. But how justified are such claims?
Let’s start with establishing why we all need a deodorant.
We need it mainly because we want to get rid of the smell in our underarms which is hardly ever pleasant. As a society in the 21st century, we grew to believe that underarm smell is totally unacceptable and nobody wants to experience it, especially if the smell comes from another person. Needless to say that just a century ago, no one had even heard of deodorant. Overall hygiene was quite poor, so underarm smell would be the least of their worries.
Some people like antiperspirant as well as a deodorant. In case you are like me, who up until recently had no clue there was a difference, here is the moment of truth: antiperspirant stops you from sweating completely by blocking your pores, whereas deodorant just neutralises or, most likely, just masks the smell. That is why most of the deodorant, especially spray ones, have such a powerful strong smell that can kill all the insects in your house. It is designed to mask the bad smell which is the byproduct of your little bacteria friends that live in your glands. I know, I know, it’s a little bit gross, but that’s nature for you.
What exactly is the body odour?
It is not just a bad smell that comes from nowhere. Science tells us that it is the perceived unpleasant smell our bodies give off when bacteria living on the skin break sweat down into acids. So it is not just the nasty little bacteria crowd that have been involved in some crazy non-stop orgy. No, it is the result of bacteria breaking down protein into acids.
Sweat itself on the other hand, is virtually odourless to humans. It is the rapid multiplication of bacteria in the presence of sweat and what they do, i.e. break sweat down into acids that eventually causes the unpleasant smell. Body odour is most likely to occur in our feet, groin, armpits, genitals, pubic hair and other hair, navel, anus, behind the ears, and to lesser extent on the rest of our skin. So we mainly sweat in the places that it is considered rude to discuss or even mention out loud. But I will be brave and go ahead.
Two types of acid are commonly present when there is body odor:
- Propionic acid (propanoic acid) is commonly found in sweat – propionibacteria break amino acids down into propionic acid. Propionibacteria live in the ducts of the sebaceous glands of adult and adolescent humans. Some people may identify a vinegar-like smell with propionic acid, because it is similar to acetic acid, which gives vinegar its sour taste and pungent smell.
- Isovaleric acid (3-methyl butanoic acid) is another source of body odor as a result of actions of the bacteriaStaphylococcus epidermidis, which are also present in several strong cheese types. 1
So in order to get rid of these acids we need to neutralise them. Or, alternatively, we can stop us from sweating by blocking the pores, don’t allow any sweat to come through and all the little bacteria will be sad and lonely as there is no environment for them to be happy and have no friends and will die childless, thus leaving us dry and odourless.
How do you block the pores?
The truth is, the human kind has not been very creative or inventive in terms of finding different ways to block pores. The most widely used ingredients in all the deodorant antiperspirants is aluminium. The more aluminium there is the higher its blocking properties are. People who suffer from hyperhydrosis (excessive sweat) are sometimes prescribed deodorant with over 20% of aluminium. Shocking, I know.
Let’s have a look at a widely used deodorant. It is one of the leaders on the market. What is it made from?
The main ingredient (14.8%!!!) is aluminium zirconium tetrachlorohydrex gly. I told you, you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it, and that’s only one of many ingredients. Aluminium zirconium tetrachlorohydrex gly works in a rather simple manner – it functions by diffusing into the sweat gland and forming a colloidal “plug” which limits the flow of sweat to the skin surface. The plug is gradually broken down and normal sweating resumes. So because it is gradually broken down, you will need to reapply it eventually. It could be in a couple of hours, or the next days, everyone sweats differently. So may be there is nothing wrong with not letting your body sweat? Not so fast.
[blockquote] Sweating is essential and natural biological process that starts soon after we are born. Sweating, or perspiring, is the body’s mechanism of keeping us cool and preventing us from overheating in a warm environment or during exercise or exertion. Our body also produces sweat when we experience strong emotions or stressful situations, during hormonal changes and it helps to play a role in fighting infections. [/blockquote]
In other words, the good old principle applies. Your body is much more clever than you think. In some cases, it is more clever than you. I know it’s hard to face the truth, but we just have to accept it and move on. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Our bodies are beautiful machines and they know what they need to do. There is no need to stop it from sweating, because it knows better than us. However, what we can and should is adjust.
But before I go into details, I want to address the topic that everyone is very excited about – aluminium and cancer.
Does deodorant cause cancer?
There are dozens of articles all over the internet saying that commercial deodorant should be abandoned or at least be limited in use. The most sceptical of us, however, would like more facts rather than just bare statements. Let’s have a look.
The most detailed article about the topic can be found here. It suggests that there was a study in 2003 which looked at responses from questionnaires sent out to women who had breast cancer. The researcher reported: “…that women who were diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age said they used antiperspirant and started shaving their underarms earlier and shaved more often than women who were diagnosed when they were older.”
So it points out that shaving and using aluminium based deodorant could be the reason why you ended up with tumours. It could be the case, but not necessarily, because: “…the study design did not include a control group of women without breast cancer and has been criticized by experts as not relevant to the safety of these underarm hygiene practices.”2
Then the article goes on with a theory as to why the above mentioned study is rubbish. It’s not because aluminium is not okay, but just younger women are more likely than older women to shave their underarms and use antiperspirants, so it doesn’t prove the link that deodorant cause cancer. So they are saying that since the 1950s women started shaving and using deodorants more often, so it’s just a coincidence. Well, I would expect a bit more of a convincing answer from a cancer research article than just a theory.
Then it goes on discussing the chances of getting cancer through tiny razor nicks, through which aluminium and other toxins can seep in. It suggests the following:
“Razor nicks may increase the risk of skin infection. If the underarm skin is already broken or infected, it is possible that some antiperspirants could cause slight irritation. But it is unlikely that this is a major source of carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) that get into the body and reach the breast cells.”
Excuse me, what do you mean it’s unlikely? How unlikely is it? It is under 1%? Is it under 10%? Is it 50%? You can’t just say it’s unlikely and curtail the argument, because it doesn’t even count as an answer. So does deodorant cause cancer?
I looked for more articles. I found the Guardian with this masterpiece. It suggests that the claims that aluminium deodorant cause cancer is unfounded. It says that:“Finding traces of aluminium or parabens in breast cancers doesn’t mean they contributed to its growth. There is also no research showing that concentrations of these substances can actually build up in tissues.” I am sorry, but this is one very lazy job.
Who said that traces of aluminium in breast cancers don’t contribute to its growth? Last time I checked, nobody knows for sure (that is 100%) why we get cancer in the first place. There are causations and increased risks, but nobody knows for sure, so the question if deodorant cause cancer is still up for debate.
If you smoke every day for 30 cigarettes a day, your chances of getting lung cancer is very high.
[blockquote] ‘If a person, who smokes nothing, has a risk factor of one – then someone who smokes 10 a day will be 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer, someone who smokes 20 a day will be 20 times more likely, and 30 cigarettes a day, 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer by the time they are 75.'((Read more here))
So even though your chance increases highly, it is not guaranteed, it just isn’t! But it doesn’t mean that you just should go ahead and smoke regardless, because that is just insane. Suggesting that aluminium doesn’t contribute to anything just because you couldn’t find any proof is one very sloppy journalism work.
Moreover, they suggest there is no research showing these substances can actually build up in tissues. Let me just stop you here. I am getting really frustrated with all the governmental websites saying there are no proven links between deodorants and cancer. They say that no research has been done to know for sure if deodorant cause cancer and that some of the small studies were inconclusive. Well, why can’t you finance a big and conclusive one? Why can’t you find out for sure?
Is it something to do with the fact that the global personal hygiene market was worth 421.2 billion in 2012 and keeps growing? I will let everyone make their own conclusions.
The belief that parabens build up in breast tissue was supported by a 2004 study, which found parabens in 18 out of 20 samples of tissue from human breast tumors. However, for some miraculous reason, the authors suddenly go on and talk in detail about all the downsides of the study. They said:“…this study did not prove that parabens cause breast tumors. The authors of this study did not analyze healthy breast tissue or tissues from other areas of the body and did not demonstrate that parabens are found only in cancerous breast tissue. Furthermore, this research did not identify the source of the parabens and cannot establish that the buildup of parabens is due to the use of deodorants or antiperspirants.”
It goes further to conclude that more research is needed to specifically examine whether the use of deodorants can cause the build-up of parabens or aluminium. Also it is necessary to determine whether these chemicals can alter our DNA or change other breast cells that may lead to the development of breast cancer. Interesting. So more research is needed, but nothing has been happened, despite quite an outcry in the media.
On a final note I’d like to direct everyone to this little article. It mentions that there has been a tiny study based on 17 women with cancer and the researchers DID find a high amount of aluminium in the skin next to the cancer tumour. It did not say that deodorant cause cancer, but it’s a start in that direction. What’s all this talk about “no evidence that concentrations of these substances can actually build up in tissues”? It was concluded that because the study was on a very low scale, they decided that the results were inconclusive and on the balance of probabilities, and because the big corporation world says so, most likely there is no causation.
But do you really want to take the risk? Let’s be straight here. There is no irrevocable proof that in no way deodorant cause cancer, all the evidence is inconclusive both ways. As we stand now, we cannot say for sure what is the answer. All the harsh chemicals and metals in your deodorants may contribute to the increased risk of certain illness, or may not. But if you use it at least once day, every single day, every single month for years and years… it most certainly will not reduce your risk.
We only need to have one look at our past to see where we are heading. Evidence of the ill-effects of smoking accumulated in the 30s, 40s, and 5os. Only at the beginning of 1960s it was taken seriously by the government and only in 1965 the USA Congress required all cigarette packages were required to have a health warning. Only in September 1970 cigarettes were banned from TV advertisements. It took 37 years from then for the UK to ban smoking inside public premises, that is in July 2007. Something to think about for all of us.
Finally, I would like to point out that it is highly unlikely that our bodies have evolved over thousands of years to cope with chemical compounds that we are increasingly stuffing our faces, bodies and houses with. All of this was only invented in the last two hundred years and from an evolutionary point of view, it’s a mere second, so we could not have adapted to it that well.