Cosmetics and breast cancer

Cosmetics and breast cancer

The links between cosmetics, toiletry products and breast cancer - questioning deodorants

By Dr. Philippa Darbre*, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Reading, England. (Originally published in icon Volume 7 Issue 1)

Why is the obvious so often overlooked and so difficult to accept? 

I have pondered this question many times over the past 5 years in relation to a possible link between cosmetic chemicals and breast cancer (1,2). In the modern world, an extensive array of cosmetics are applied to the underarm and breast area on a daily basis through use of underarm antiperspirant/deodorant products, body lotions, body sprays, moisturizing creams, breast-enhancing creams and suncare products. These products are applied frequently and left on the skin allowing not only for continuous dermal exposure but also absorption and accumulation in underlying tissues of the breast. These products are used in increasing frequency (do we need to use a can of antiperspirant every 5 days?) and by ever-younger children (do babies smell so much that they need spraying with underarm antiperspirant?). Over the past 5 years, chemical components used in these products have been shown to be present in either human breast tissue or human breast milk (which has been secreted from breast cells) including parabens, aluminium, triclosan, phthalates, UV screens, and although in most cases their exact source cannot be traced, their presence in breast indicates the need for more detailed research on exposure/absorption and any relation between chemical overload and breast cancer (3-5).

Underarm Deodorants and breast cancer risk

For me, compelling evidence of a link comes from the unexplained disproportionately high number of breast cancers which start in the upper outer quadrant of the breast and which is the area to which underarm cosmetics are applied in highest amounts (1,2,4). Analysis of annual quadrant incidence of breast cancer in Britain published in 2005 showed not only that there were now 54% of breast cancers in that region but that the relative proportion in that region had risen linearly on an annual basis since 1979 (6). This is inconsistent with current dogma that the high incidence of breast cancer in that region relates solely to more breast tissue there. Studies published in 2004 further showed increased levels of genomic instability in outer regions of the human breast (7) and cancer would be more likely to arise in areas where there are genetic alterations.

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Risk factors for breast cancer are known to include inherited inability to repair DNA (BRCA1/BRCA2 breast cancer susceptibility genes) and hormonal (especially oestrogen) components, and over the past 5 years the mechanisms of action of many cosmetic chemicals have been studied and shown to include ability to damage DNA and to mimic and/or interfere with oestrogen action (4). I await the day when the national research agenda includes, as priority, this proposed link between cosmetic chemicals and breast cancer, and when other cancer charities are less quick to reassure the public of the safety of using cosmetics at any level around the human breast.

In the meantime, a precautionary principle could be to cut down or cut out on chemicals applied under the arms and around the breast on a daily basis. In particular, shaving prior to cosmetic application should be avoided because shaving can create abrasions in the skin allowing easier access for chemicals into underlying tissues. I gave up using any such products ten years ago. I wash with soap and water twice a day and I now question the need for such products. How was it that the human population managed for millennia without these products and yet we have become so dependant on the daily use of underarm cosmetics in the world today?

* Dr. Philippa Darbre (now Professor) is a world expert in toxic chemicals and breast cancer.


1) Darbre PD. 2001. Underarm cosmetics are a cause of breast cancer. European Journal of Cancer Prevention 10 389-393.

2) Darbre PD. 2003. Underarm cosmetics and breast cancer. J Appl Toxicol 23 89-95.

3) Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR et al. 2004. Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. J Appl Toxicol 24 5-13.

4) Darbre PD. 2006. Environmental oestrogens, cosmetics and breast cancer. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 20 121-143.

5) Exley C, Charles LM, Barr L et al. 2007. Aluminium in human breast tissue. J Inorganic Biochem 101 1344-1346.

6) Darbre PD. 2005. Recorded quadrant incidence of female breast cancer in Great Britain suggests a disproportionate increase in the upper outer quadrant of the breast. Anticancer Research 25 2543-2550.

7) Ellsworth DL, Ellsworth RE, Love B et al. 2004. Outer breast quadrants demonstrate increased levels of genomic instability. Ann Surg Oncol 11 861-868.

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