Every time I still see the link between antiperspirants and cancer falsely referred to as a "debunked myth," I think of the story I reported for CBS News back in 2005. A transcript is below.
DECEMBER 5, 2005 / 6:17 PM / CBS
If you've checked out the back of your antiperspirant lately, you might have noticed something different: new labels required by the Food and Drug Administration. They point out that antiperspirants are "drugs" containing "aluminum" ingredients — that's what stops the sweat.
The aluminum is also what concerns some people, including Dr. Kris McGrath.
"I personally feel there is a very strong correlation between the underarm hygiene habits and breast cancer," McGrath tells CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.
McGrath, an immunologist and instructor at Northwestern University, has been intrigued by a potential breast cancer link since medical school.
It got personal when his wife — a frequent shaver and antiperspirant user — got breast cancer.
"She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987," McGrath says. "She died in 1989."
People who don't believe in a link point to this 2002 study that finds no connection.
But it didn't take into account how often a woman shaved and used antiperspirant, which McGrath considered crucial. So he did his own study of breast cancer patients and found this: The more these women shaved and used antiperspirants, the sooner they got breast cancer.
Is he trying to say all cases of breast cancer could be linked to antiperspirants and shaving?
"Absolutely not," McGrath says. "Breast cancer has existed since Hippocrates. But when you plot the sales of antiperspirant deodorants with the incidence of breast cancer in the United States, they both have grown in almost a parallel fashion."
It's not conclusive proof, but enough, McGrath says, to call for large-scale studies.
Rumors of a link between antiperspirants, shaving and breast cancer have circulated for years, but had been written off as an urban myth by most people — including the FDA's Web site which calls it a "...false...scary stories..." CBS News tried to ask the FDA whether the case really is closed, but they wouldn't let Attkisson interview any of their experts.
Instead, they seemed to shift from the "myth" status, telling CBS News: "FDA is aware of concerns that antiperspirant use (in conjunction with underarm shaving) may be associated with increased risk of developing breast cancer. FDA continues to search scientific literature for studies examining this possible adverse drug effect. Unfortunately, there are many publications that discuss the issue, but very few studies in which data has been collected and analyzed. Overall, the studies (containing data) are inconclusive in determining whether antiperspirants, in any way, contribute to the development of breast cancer. FDA hopes that definitive studies exploring breast cancer incidence and antiperspirant use will be conducted in the near future."
The billion-dollar antiperspirant industry says the products are undeniably safe.
"Has this issue been definitively laid to rest?" Attkisson asks John Bailey, a director of cosmetic chemistry as the cosmetic toiletry and fragrance association.
"I think the products are safe and I think that the best science is being applied to making that determination that they're safe," Bailey says.
"But you're not saying yes or no," Attkisson says.
"It's not a yes or no answer," Bailey replies.
The National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society agree a link can't be conclusively ruled out. But they say there's no reason to throw out your antiperspirant in fear. Read the Cancer Institute's fact sheet. The American Cancer Society receives funding from the antiperspirant industry but would not tell us how much.
McGrath advises his patients to consider the uncertainties. At least one of them thinks the government ought to go public and admit the breast cancer antiperspirant myth might not be a myth after all.
"I think the government should take an honest stand and say if they're not sure, so that women have the right to know and that they can make their own choice," says Michelle Bibergal.
On Monday night's broadcast, CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson looked into studies and claims by some doctors that using antiperspirants might be linked to breast cancer.
Here's her follow-up reports on possible alternatives to antiperspirants.
Tom Chappel marketed the first all-natural deodorant in the 1970's – but lately, business has never been better.
Chappel figures more people are shunning their antiperspirants and trying deodorants like his instead ever since the FDA started requiring new labels on antiperspirants.
The labels tell consumers that antiperspirants are drugs, they contain aluminum to stop sweat, and they warn people with kidney disease to consult with their doctor. Deodorants on the other hand, aren't drugs, don't have aluminum, and don't stop sweat — they just fight odor.
There are all kinds of worries about aluminum in antiperspirants. It could be toxic to people whose kidneys aren't working properly. Some medical experts have other questions: Is it bad for developing children? Could it cause Alzheimer's or breast cancer?
Science hasn't provided all the conclusive answers, but the FDA considers antiperspirants safe and effective, and mainstream medicine brushes off any serious concerns.
Still, people with genetic risk factors like Julie Herron would rather use deodorants than take any chance with antiperspirants.
"My mother and my grandmother both had breast cancer, my grandmother actually twice," Harron says.
None of this is lost on the antiperspirant industry, which has been frustrated by what it calls unfounded fears.
"I think that the information we have, the studies that have been done are adequate to answer the question that these products are safe," says John Bailey, director of cosmetic chemistry at the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association.
Dr. Ted Gansler of the American Cancer Society, which received funding from antiperspirant makers but will not disclose how much, also says if there's any risk at all, it's very slight.
"If someone is very, very concerned there might be a one percent chance that this slightly increases risk, then fine. Then no one's forcing them to use these products," Dr. Gansler says.
Which brings us back to Tom's of Maine and Chappel's botanical concoction.
"We don't use chemicals, we don't use artificial ingredients, we don't use aluminum in our deodorants," Chappel says.
With over $12 million in deodorant sales this year, he's enjoying the sweet smell of success.
Note: Tom's has since been sold. Lume is a new deodorant alternative with no aluminum.
Read the American Cancer Society's complaint over the report and the fact that I disclosed their financial ties with the antiperspirant industry, and read my response to it here.