As breast cancer rates continue to rise, experts have debated about where to lay the blame.
Certainly, there is the obesity crisis, the fact that women drink more alcohol than before and that we tend to be less active than women of previous generations — all known risk factors.
With the introduction of a breast screening service in the late Eighties, more cancers are now detected, too.
But could some of the blame lie with the use of antiperspirants? Most use aluminium-based compounds to prevent sweat, probably by inhibiting sweat glands.
This is different from deodorants, which don’t stop sweating but mask its odour, and may contain chemicals to kill bacteria, but don’t contain aluminium.
Confusingly, most people and even some manufacturers use the term ‘deodorant’ to refer to antiperspirants, too.
For some time, there has been a suggestion that the aluminium salts used in antiperspirants can increase the risk of breast cancer if used for long periods of time.
And, as a result — and despite manufacturers saying the products are entirely safe — consumer demand for aluminium-free antiperspirants is rising.
An intriguing new study, published last week in the renowned International Journal of Cancer by highly regarded researchers at the University of Geneva, found that long-term exposure to aluminium chloride — a compound widely used in underarm products — can trigger the development of ‘very aggressive’ tumours, which have the ability to spread to different parts of the body.
It’s thought that the compounds may act on the body’s cells in the same way as oestrogen, a hormone that feeds breast tumours.
The lead researcher, Professor Andre-Pascal Sappino, an oncologist went as far as to conclude: ‘I think we should avoid all underarm products containing aluminium salts.’
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of the charity Breast Cancer Now, said women should not stop using these products, pointing out a major flaw in the study — which looked at how aluminium salts affected breast tissue in mice, not humans.
Paul Pharoah, professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, also dismissed the findings, saying: ‘These results tell us little about the potential for aluminium chloride to cause breast cancer when used normally.’
Philippa Darbre, a professor of oncology at the University of Reading, believes the cancer risk from using anti-perspirants is more complex than simply blaming aluminium.
‘Yes, it looks like aluminium plays a part, but I think other chemicals in underarm products, including parabens, which are used as preservatives to keep the product fresh and which mimic the female hormone oestrogen, are probably fuelling the growth of tumours,’ she says.
Like Professor Exley, she believes the University of Geneva study is valid. ‘It isn’t perfect, but it does use good science.’
Professor Darbre, 64, herself chooses to be aluminium-free and has not used any underarm products since 1995 when she first started investigating chemicals in antiperspirants and deodorants at the university’s School of Biological Sciences.
‘Up until then, I had used antiperspirants and deodorants twice every day, like everyone else did. But the more that I looked into the data, the more concerned I became,’ she explains.
When she stopped using products, she suffered a ‘rebound effect’ which lasted for a few months.
‘I was very sticky and developed sore patches under my arms because of excessive sweating. I even asked my husband, who has never used deodorant, if I should make such a big sacrifice just on a hunch.
'He told me it was important and I should carry on.’
Three months later, she said the sweating stopped and she has since been fine, washing twice a day with soap and water.
She felt so strongly about the dangers of underarm products that she also actively discouraged her children, Rowena, 31, who is a toxicologist, and Alexander, 25, from using underarm products.
Commenting on the trend towards aluminium-free products, a spokesperson from the Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association said the industry is reacting to consumer demand.
‘While it isn’t possible to determine why a consumer may buy one product over another, as choosing a cosmetic product is a very personal thing, it is true that the cosmetics industry is extremely innovative and there is a wide range of cosmetic products available to suit everyone’s lifestyles, needs and budgets.’