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Up in Arms over Underarms

By Dr. Kris G McGrath MD

Only 5-10% of breast cancer has a genetic link, while 90% is linked to the environment or a particular lifestyle, primarily a Western lifestyle. The closest environment to the breast is the underarm and the closest Western lifestyle is the daily application of antiperspirants, deodorants, or more commonly in combination. This daily routine is more often the not, preceded by underarm shaving. In the United States 90% of the population uses antiperspirants/deodorants.

The skin is the largest organ of the body; it is one of our first lines of defense, protecting us from dehydration, infection, as well as chemical and radiation exposure. Surprisingly, modern pharmacology is using the skin for drug delivery, including medications for blood pressure and pain control, hormone replacement, contraception, motion sickness, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and soon, insulin delivery for diabetes. This delivery system has not been without risk, including an FDA required warning label for the opioid based pain-relieving patch, Duragesic, after several overdoses were reported. In early 2007 a New York teenage girl died from over applying anti-inflammatory creams and patches to her skin. The upper extremities and shoulders have the best absorption as compared to the lower extremities and trunk.

A great amount of research is done before FDA approval of these skin applied medications. On the contrary, the many ingredients in antiperspirants, deodorants are not as rigorously studied and use is daily over decades. Some of the ingredients in Antiperspirants have been shown to enter the skin, shaved and unshaved.
Shaving removes hair and skin cells as well as causing small abrasions. Without the hair and skin there to “grab” these compounds, more absorption may occur.

Just under the skin lies the lymphatic system which collects excess fluid from surrounding cells, returning it to the circulation. More importantly the lymphatic system is part of the immune system fighting off infection, disease and removes foreign particles. Interesting the lymphatic flow in the underarms and breast is bi-directional (a 2 way street), not one way controlled by valves as in other parts of the body. So chemicals applied to one underarm could expose the nearest as well as the farthest breast.

So in summary, Westernized women are applying chemical compounds in antiperspirants/deodorants on the skin daily over decades. These compounds have not been studied long term with respect to skin absorption and possible toxicity. Skin transport is an FDA approved delivery system for many well studied drugs. The under arms are located in the upper extremities which by research is the most efficient site for skin delivered drugs. The breasts and the underarms are directly linked by the skin and lymphatic system. This antiperspirant/deodorant exposure occurs daily over decades, likely facilitated by underarm shaving. Interesting when the incidence of breast cancer since the 1940’s is plotted against the same time period of antiperspirant/deodorant sales, an eerie parallel is seen.

Click for the full-sized image
USA breast cancer incidence and antiperspirant/deodorant sales (Roush et al., 1987; SEER Cancer Incidence Public-Use Database, 2001; US Cosmetic and Toiletries Market, 2001).[1]

My study published in 2003 revealed a significant earlier age of diagnoses in those women who more frequently used antiperspirants and shaved their underarms, than those women who less frequently did these habits and especially than those who did not use these products or shave. The most active group was diagnosed 22 years earlier than the non users. And those women starting these habits before the age of 16 were diagnosed 9 years earlier. To put this in perspective, individuals who start using tobacco at an earlier age, especially with heavier use are diagnosed with a tobacco related illness at an earlier age. I am most concerned with the aluminum in antiperspirants. The active component of aluminum, Al+3 has been shown to alter DNA, one of the ways cancer can start. Dr. Darbre in England also is concerned about the estrogen like activity of a common group of preservatives the parabens, as well as aluminum affecting estrogen receptor sites. Estrogen has long been linked to breast cancer. By all means I’m not suggesting all breast cancer may be related to underarm hygiene habits since breast cancer has been around since Hippocrates, long before these current underarm habits began.

For underarm hygiene the best recommendation would be soap and water, and no underarm shaving; however, I am then asked what products do you, your family and patient’s use. Underarm hygiene habits begin by age 9 or 10! I have reviewed and studied labels on countless products. I am most impressed with Terra Natural’s product line of deodorants. Terra natural’s share my concern over the proximity of the underarm to the lymphatic system and the breast. The daily application over decades of compounds, all that well not studied, concerns them as much as me. Their motto is, “Why take a chance if you don’t have to?” Terra Naturals products work in controlling odor by using all natural ingredients. The ingredients are all plant or food based, not containing any synthetic petroleum based ingredients. Their’s is a plant based preservative system and the use of healthy antioxidants and anti-tumor herbs. Future plans include the addition of ingredients that are well studied with published results in peer reviewed science and medical journals. These future ingredients assist the immune system in fighting cancer, inflammation and microorganisms.

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Click here to read more about Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer.


  1. 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 12 (2003): 479-485. 24 Jan. 2008.
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  1. Top of the morning to you! Wow what a fantastic article about Breast Cancer! Your keen insight into Breast Cancer is informative and creative. I look forward to reading other articles you have. Thanks.


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