Image Credit: National Cancer Institute / Unsplash. This image has been modified.

Armpit Shaving and Breast Cancer

Shaving before applying underarm antiperspirants can increase aluminum absorption. Could this explain the greater number of tumors and the disproportionate incidence of breast cancer in the upper outer quadrant of the breast near the armpit?

A famous case report called “The Mortician’s Mystery,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in the 1980s, described a man whose testicles started shrinking and breasts started growing. It turns out the mortician failed to wear gloves as he massaged embalming cream onto corpses. It was concluded there must have been an estrogenic compound in the cream that was absorbed through his skin into his body, one of the first such cases described.

This case was cited as inspiration by a group of researchers who came up with a new theory to explain a breast cancer mystery: Why do most breast cancers occur in the upper outer corner of the breast? The standard explanation was simply because that’s where most of the breast tissue is located, as the so-called tail of the breast extends up to the armpit, but that doesn’t explain the fact that it wasn’t always this way. Indeed, there has been a shift toward the appearance of breast cancer in the upper corner of the breast. And, it also doesn’t explain why “greater genomic instability”––chromosome abnormalities––has been “observed…in outer quadrants of the breast,” which may signal precancerous changes. There definitely seems to be something happening to that outer side of the breast, and it’s something relatively new, occurring in the last 50 years or so.

Is it possible that the increasing use of [underarm] antiperspirant which parallels breast cancer incidence could also be an explanation for the greater number of ductal tumours…and disproportionate incidence of breast cancer in the upper outer quadrant” of the breast near the site where stick, spray, or roll-on is applied? I discuss this possibility in my video Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer, where you can see a graph of U.S. breast cancer incidence and antiperspirant/deodorant sales at 1:38.

There is a free flow of lymph fluid back and forth between the breast and the armpit. If you measure aluminum levels in breasts removed during mastectomies, the “aluminum content of breast tissue in the outer regions [near the armpits]…was significantly higher,” presumably due to the “closer proximity to the underarm” area.

This is a concern because, in a petri dish at least, it has been demonstrated that aluminum is a so-called metalloestrogen, having pro-estrogenic effects on breast cancer cells. Long-term exposure of normal breast tissue cells in a test tube to aluminum concentrations in the range of those found in breasts results in precancerous-type changes. Then, as you can see at 2:41 in my video, once the cells have turned, those same concentrations “can increase the migratory and invasive activity of…human breast cancer cells” in a petri dish. This is important because women don’t die from the tumor in the breast itself, “but from the ability of the cancer cells to spread and grow at distant sites,” like the bones, lungs, liver, or brain. But, we don’t care about petri dishes. We care about people.

In 2002, a paper was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in which the underarm antiperspirant habits of 800 breast cancer survivors were compared with those of women who had never gotten breast cancer, the first study of its kind. The finding? No indication of a link between the two.

Based on this study, Harvard Women’s Health Watch assured women that antiperspirants do not cause breast cancer and “women who are worried that antiperspirants might cause breast cancer can finally rest easy.” But two months later, another study was published that found that “frequency and earlier onset of antiperspirant/deodorant usage with underarm shaving was associated with an earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis.” As you can see at 3:56 in my video, it’s as much as 20 years earlier in women using antiperspirant and shaving their armpits more than three times a week. And, the earlier they started before versus after age 16 appeared to move up their breast cancer diagnosis by 10 or 20 years. The researchers concluded that “underarm shaving with antiperspirant/deodorant use may play a role in breast cancer” after all.

But what does shaving have to do with it? Shaving removes more than just armpit hair. It also removes armpit skin; you end up shaving off the top skin layer. And, while there is very little aluminum absorption through intact skin, when you strip off the outer layer with a razor and then rub on an antiperspirant, you get a six-fold increase in aluminum absorption through the skin. Though this is good news for women who don’t shave, the high transdermal, or through-the-skin, aluminum uptake on shaved skin “should compel antiperspirant manufacturers to proceed with the utmost caution.”

Both European safety authorities and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specifically advise against using aluminum antiperspirants on damaged or broken skin. However, shaving before antiperspirant application “can create abrasions in the skin…thereby negating the specific warning by the FDA and EU.” (I’m sure everyone knows about the FDA’s cautionary advice, having read Title 21 Part 350 Subpart C50-5c1 of the Code of Federal Regulations.)

We get so much aluminum in our diet from processed foods—such as anticaking agents in pancake mix, melting agents in American cheese, meat binders, gravy thickeners, baking powder, and candy—that the contribution from underarm antiperspirants would presumably be minimal in comparison. “But everything was turned topsy-turvy in 2004,” when a case was reported of a woman with bone pain and fatigue suffering from aluminum toxicity. Within months of stopping the antiperspirant, which she had been applying daily to her regularly shaved armpits, her aluminum levels came down and her symptoms resolved. Although not everyone absorbs that much aluminum, the case “suggests that caution should be exercised when using aluminum-containing antiperspirants frequently.”

Recently, as you can see at 6:29 in my video, it was shown that women with breast cancer have twice the level of aluminum in their breasts compared with women without breast cancer, though this doesn’t prove cause and effect. Maybe the aluminum contributed to the cancer, or maybe the cancer contributed to the aluminum. Maybe tumors just absorb more aluminum. Subsequent research has suggested this alternative explanation is unlikely. So, where do we stand now?

The latest review on the subject concluded that as a consequence of the new data, given that aluminum can be toxic and we have no need for it, “reducing the concentration of this metal in antiperspirants is a matter of urgency.” Or, at the very least, the label should warn: “Do not use after shaving.” Of course, we could cease usage of aluminum-containing antiperspirants altogether, but then wouldn’t we smell? Ironically, antiperspirants can make us stink worse. They increase the types of bacteria that cause body odor. It’s like the story with antidepressant drugs, which can actually make one more depressed in the long run (as I discuss in my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?). The more we use antiperspirants, the more we may need them, which is awfully convenient for a billion-dollar industry.

Is there any way to decrease body odor through changes in diet? An early video of mine discusses Body Odor and Diet, and I have some new updated ones coming down the pike!


What else can we do to decrease breast cancer risk? See, for example:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


39 responses to “Armpit Shaving and Breast Cancer

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  1. I stopped shaving my armpits decades ago — because I suffered from abscesses, which were sufficiently serious as to be disabling (I couldn’t lift my arms or carry anything) and on occasion to require a course of antibiotics. How stupid is that? And, since I stopped shaving, I haven’t had a single recurrence.

    Why do women undertake such bizarre “beauty” rituals? Men don’t shave their armpits — or at lest they didn’t. Why isn’t clean and tidy, healthy and fit enough?

    As for deodorants or antiperspirants, I haven’t used those in years. My husband stopped without telling me — and I was so surprised when he finally told me, as I couldn’t tell the difference! So I stopped — and I’ve never restarted. I wish I’d known years ago that antiperspirants can make us smell worse. That makes complete sense. The skin microbiome is incredibly complex, and we know very little about it. I now think they less we interfere with it, the better.

    Finally, although I was my hands much more frequently and thoroughly than I have in the past, I rarely suffer from dry cracked skin. I wonder if this is due to the fact that I rinse thoroughly, and I use soap instead of a detergent containing hand cleanser? “Soaps are made from natural ingredients, such as plant oils (coconut, vegetable, palm, pine) or acids derived from animal fat. Detergents, on the other hand, are synthetic, man-made derivatives.”. https://www.nycoproducts.com/resources/blog/simple-science-the-difference-between-soap-and-detergent/ When I washed my hands in public restrooms, they would hurt, hurt, hurt afterward (even though I rinsed them with copious amounts of water), until I applied cream or lotion.

  2. Why hasn’t the public being told that using antiperspirants can increase aluminum absorption, and therefore increase the chances of Cancer, period. These antiperspirants with aluminum are designed to stop perspiration. Absolutely a bad thing for the body, period. One can use a deodorant to smell less like a sweaty air pit, is fine. That will not cause problems.

    1. I have to wear a 1″wide harness 18hrs a day, over a cotton T shirt. I researched and dropped all anti persperants. Under arm Odour comes from bacteria hydrolysis of body fat extrusions. Essential oils like lavender, tee tree, etc. Kill all bacteria, hence the fat cannot go rancid and smell. .

    1. Of course, people like my husband and me smell of onions and garlic when we sweat. I remember Dr. McDougall noticed that about his 1970s vegetarian patients in Hawaii. We wash up when that happens, but we don’t mind it at all in each other.

  3. I have had a number of men come to me for advice after using an antiperspirant who do not shave their under arms, and within two weeks of using the product they started to develop tumors under the arm which were very painful. I suggested they immediately stop the antiperspirant and switch to a simple deodorant and within 2-3 weeks the problem was resolved. I am certain the industry is well aware of what aluminum does in an antiperspirant. People are so worried about smelling they are happy to block their under arm pores, without thinking what will this do to my body !!!

  4. For homemade deodorant without aluminum or chemicals, stir together 20 g of baking soda and 16 g of cornstarch. Gently heat 35 g of coconut oil until liquid and stir thoroughly with the dry ingredients until the mixture is no longer grainy. If desired, add some scent. Store in a glass jar.

    1. Unfortunately, baking soda deodorants give me painful rashes – a rather common complaint. When I was in the office, I used Schmidt’s Fragrance-Free Sensitive Skin Formula on warm days. I haven’t used aluminum-containing antiperspirants for 20 years. Since March 16, I’ve been working from home and using nothing. Same with my husband. Neither of us has noticed smelliness from ourselves or each other. Of course, we have easy access to soap and water if we get sweaty working in the garden, etc. I don’t think I’ll go back to using any kind of deodorant. My office isn’t usually a place that makes me sweat, and we aren’t that close to each other. Maybe with post-COVID spacing, more people can skip the deodorant! I could see that working in a stuffy office in a big city wearing a suit might make antiperspirant more desirable. Fortunately, that’s not my situation.

  5. All anti-perspirants should be BANNED. Using them can only cause health issues down the line i.e. breast cancer; among others. Our bodies were meant to perspire … using “anti” perspirants blocks what should occur naturally. I do like to shave; however afterward I pat on some coconut oil which soothes and takes care of any odor thereafter. Always worked for me!

  6. One excellent aluminum-free roll on deodorant is the MOM (milk of magnesia) product available through The People’s Pharmacy website. There may be others

  7. Go to your health food store and buy a salt stick antiperspirant roller. Costs about $8.00, lasts for months and works like a charm. Label shows 100% salt with no additives.

  8. Wow! what great info to pass on to women. I had wondered about that so long ago and indeed stopped using aluminum deodorants 25 years ago. My plant based diet solved the odor problem for sure- onions still a problem though.

    Thank you Dr. Greger and team for this important women’s health information.

    A proud and healthy monthly supporter of Nutrition Facts.org :)

  9. Became a whole food plant base eater (WFPB) in July 2019. I have celebrated my one year anniversary. I do not have to use deodorant anymore because there is no body odor. Not to mention that lost 56 pounds and now enjoy a normal body weight. Thanks for sharing this information! I work as an Nurse Practitioner at an Oncology clinic and I have shared this will all the team members!.

  10. I also stopped wearing deodorant years ago. I live in a very hot climate and very active with outside activities. I wear long sleeved shirts to keep the sun off my aging skin. My pits do not stink! I thought it was from my strict, healthy, vegan diet. My shirts, however, have so much bacteria growth they smell awful. My skin smells like nothing.

  11. Our obsession with women shaving their armpits in the name of femininity is just one example of the modern world being stacked against women. I’ll admit that I am a bit caught up in this cultural oddity myself, and I definitely need to work harder to reframe my perceptions. Thanks for that reminder, Dr. Greger.

    I personally still use antiperspirant some, but not regularly. I’ve switched to a deodorant for daily use. The MOM product mentioned is effective for me, but it does create a lot of white caking that I find undesirable. I honestly haven’t yet found an underarm deodorant product that I love.

    1. Scott I really love the line of natural deodorants called Schmidts. You can buy the now in larger grocery stores as well as natural food stores like Whole Foods,. Sprouts and Natural Grocers… my personal fave is the Lime and Bergamot- scents are not strong at all!

    2. Thanks for thinking about the hairlessness for women issue, Scott. I’m disturbed by the complete body hairlessness ideal for women. It seems like our culture is trying to make the prepubescent girl’s body more desirable than the adult woman’s. I find that creepy. And a bit funny – women are supposed to have super thick hair on their heads, but no hair elsewhere! I wonder what an alien anthropologist would think of us?

  12. Scott,

    For me, body odor depends on what vegan foods I eat. It does change a lot day to day.

    I like the 72-hour deodorants.

    There are vegan brands. I mostly just use them “as necessary” and that has saved me money.

    https://lumedeodorant.com/

    I have tried the baking soda method and that seems the cheapest, but it does irritate my skin sometimes.

    As to the shaving, I probably never did it every 3 days. I like products like Nair for the underarms, but would not use deodorant for a few days after because of rashes, so maybe that is safer.

    1. Thanks, Deb. I looked at the website for Lume. Based on what I read and what you said, I ordered some of their deodorant to try.

  13. I have been avoiding antiperspirants for decades. When I was a teenager and first started using them, I developed horrible rashes. So I stopped, and the rashes went away. Aluminum-free natural deodorants have never given me any issue.

  14. It’s so very individual and personal, regarding body odor. How strong our smell is, how sensitive we are about it.

    Remember those commercials where, heaven forbid, you had B.O.!!

    I quit using antiperspirants years ago. The baking soda based deodorants give me a rash. And while I like the smell of lavender, it actually seems to enhance my armpit stink, in not a good way.

    I’ve found that the solid deodorant crystal, mineral salts, in a stick form, to be very effective if I wash my pits daily before applying (I don’t shower every day).

    1. Dharma,

      I never had good results from the deodorant crystals. I even tried spray-on versions.

      Not sure why. I tried salts and I have tried lots of things.

      I get the same rash from baking soda as you do.

      Getting rid of the hair and washing with soap is probably what I find most effective.

  15. Going back to the shaving and waxing and not doing either, what I will say is that I have done all of the above and getting rid of the hair now and then gets rid of the smell and sweat better than deodorant or antiperspirant.

    I know that from experience, but I decided to look it up to see if PubMed agreed and, with males, they did a hair-removal test and the answers were:

    Soap washing alone resulted in a reduction of 23.5% of odor
    Trimming the hair followed by soap washing resulted in a 27.2% reduction
    Shaving followed by soap washing resulted in a reduction of 57.3%
    Waxing followed by soap washing resulted in a 75.3% reduction of odor

    And the P-Value was < 0.0001

    I don't know how to fit WFPB into that equation, but, even as WFPB, getting rid of the hair now and then works the best.

    Better than deodorant of any type.

    1. You are probably getting much more aluminium from the food you eat and the water you drink every week than you will ever find in the occasional vaccination.you have,

    2. Conventional allopathic medicine says no. The problem with that question is that there are thousands of people who have autoimmune disease, cancer, and chronic fatigue syndrome. When the allopathic doctor attends to them, they say, “Bad luck”, or “it’s all in your head”, or “There is nothing that can be done about this.” It is too expensive, and it doesn’t fit in their profit model. Their answer therefore is that it all comes out of your body. There is no problem.

      Thousands of these very sick people have gotten better with naturopathic, osteopathic, or chiropractic doctors, who don’t have the same profit system set up by corporate MBA’s. They have detox programs that can help people get the heavy metals and other toxins out.

      So I guess the answer depends on how the practitioner is being paid.

      1. The placebo effect is also real. So are people who say they have symptoms of this and that, which go away on their own.

        It’s easy to claim that quack treatments cure people. Providing good scientific evidence of this seems impossibly difficult though. Strange that,

        In a large study, patients with nonmetastatic breast, lung, or colorectal cancer who chose alternative therapies had substantially worse survival than patients who received conventional cancer treatments.

        After a median of 5 years, patients with breast or colorectal cancer were nearly five times as likely to die if they had used an alternative therapyExit Disclaimer as their initial treatment than if they had received conventional treatment.

        https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/110/1/121/4064136

        1. Hi Tom. John will probably say this is flawed science on allopathic medicine. He will likely say that you are trying to assess it with the same flawed tools that created it.

  16. I have been using alcohol under my arms after evening shower and in the morning. This prevents bacteria overgrowth and smell. I have a 12 year old grandson in sports and he is doing the same, even using an alcohol hand rub for hands and underarms he can carry in his backpack or sports gear.

  17. I have found that using an aluminum free, natural deodorant and then patting on some Burt’s Bees baby powder afterwards does the trick.

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