Aluminium salts in antiperspirants
Why is aluminium used in antiperspirant?
Aluminium salts are the active ingredients used in antiperspirants. Salts commonly used include aluminium chloride, aluminium chlorohydrate, and aluminium zirconium chlorohydrate complexes (1). They may be listed in ingredients as “natural mineral salts”, “natural rock salts”, or “potassium alum” (potassium aluminium sulphate).
Aluminium compounds act by blocking sweat ducts under the arm. This prevents sweat from escaping onto the skin surface and reduces the moist environment in which odour causing bacteria multiply. Antiperspirants are a specific type of deodorant. Other types of deodorants may contain perfume to mask the smell and antimicrobial agents to inhibit bacterial growth - as it's the bacteria on the skin's surface that generates the smell from sweat (2).
Does aluminium enter skin cells?
Aluminium has been shown to be absorbed through intact skin from application of antiperspirant under the arm (3). When skin is damaged, for example during shaving, six-fold more aluminium can be absorbed (4).
The EU (5) has published a statement of caution that antiperspirant should not be applied to damaged or irritated skin, yet it is common to shave the underarm area before applying antiperspirant.
Antiperspirants are applied to the underarm and upper chest area and are left on the skin, allowing for continuous exposure to the aluminium salts. This is the region of the breast where the majority of breast cancers start. In the UK, for example, over 50% of breast cancers start in the upper outer quadrant of the breast near the underarm (6).
Aluminium has been measured in several human breast structures, including breast tissue (7, 8) and breast cysts (9), at higher levels than is present in blood.
What is the evidence aluminiium salts are linked to breast cancer?
Whilst no studies have demonstrated a direct causal link between breast cancer and aluminium, recent opinion has questioned the ascribed safety of using aluminium salts in underarm cosmetics (10, 11, 12, 13).
Cell culture studies have shown that human breast epithelial cells can turn into a cancerous phenotype following exposure to aluminium chloride (14), and exposure of human breast cancer cells to aluminium chloride and aluminium chlorohydrate can make cells more motile (15, 16). Mortality from breast cancer is mainly associated with tumour spread, which depends on cancer cells developing motility.
Lifetime exposure to oestrogen is an established risk factor for breast cancer and aluminium chloride and aluminium chlorohydrate have been shown to act as metalloestrogens, capable of interfering with oestrogen action and under certain conditions stimulating responses assocated with natural oestrogen (17).
A recent in vitro study (18) found long term exposure to aluminium chloride at environmentally relevant concentrations (19) could cause mammary cells to become cancerous and capable of forming tumours (20).
A systematic review which aimed to estimate risk of deodorant/antiperspirant use for breast cancer concluded that although there was no evidence of risk, insufficient studies had been undertaken to obtain reliable results (21). A study published recently, which examined self-reported underarm cosmetic product use and breast cancer diagnosis, did find an association between long-term use of underarm cosmetics and an increase in breast cancer risk. Furthermore, underarm cosmetic use was associated with higher concentrations of aluminium chloride in breast tissue (22). More recent is needed to confirm both these associations.
The EU position on aluminium in antiperspirants
In 2014 the EU's Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) conducted an assessment of aluminium in antiperspirants and found there was no indication that these increase the risk of cancer, but acknowledged there were significant gaps in scientific data which impeded risk assessment (23). Risk assessments by other European agencies suggest aluminium in cosmetic products is not considered safe (e.g. 24). Currently, the SCCS is revising its assessment and the opinion will be published in October, 2017 (25).
Concerns about the possible link between aluminium salts-containing antiperspirants and breast cancer have led the Swiss National Council to consider a ban or else mandatory warning labels on all aluminim-containing antiperspirants (26).
Scientific evidence linking the use of underarm antiperspirants to breast cancer is inconclusive. However, as the above shows there is clearly some research that suggests the need for a precautionary approach to be taken. If you have concerns about aluminium salts in antiperspirants but still want to use a deodorant, look out for products that are "aluminium-free". Remember to ensure these products are "paraben-free" also.
1. Laden K. and Felger C. B. (1988) Antiperspirants and deodorants: cosmetic science and technology series volume 7, Marcel Dekker, New York.
3. Flarend, R. et al. (2001) A preliminary study of the dermal absorption of aluminium from antiperspirants using aluminium-26. Food Chemical Toxicology 39: 163-168. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11267710
4. Pineau, A. et al. (2012). In vitro study of percutaneous absorption of aluminium from antiperspirants through human skin in the Franz diffusion cell. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry 110: 21-26. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22459170
5. EU Cosmetics Directive 76/768/EEC http://eurlex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CONSLEG:1976L0768:20100301:en:PDF
6. Darbre P. D. and Charles, A. K. (2010). Environmental oestrogens and breast cancer: evidence for combined involvement of dietary, household and cosmetic xenoestrogens. Anticancer Research 30: 815-828. http://ar.iiarjournals.org/content/30/3/815.full.pdf
7. Exley, C. et al. (2007). Aluminium in human breast tissue. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry 101: 1344-1346. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17629949
8. House, E. et al. (2013). The aluminium content of breast tissue taken from women with breast cancer. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology 27: 257-266. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23870171
9. Mannello, F. et al. (2009). Concentration of aluminium in breast cyst fluids collected from women affected by gross cystic breast disease. Journal of Applied Toxicology 29(1): 1-6 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18785682
10. Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety. (2013). Risk assessment of the exposure to aluminium through food and the use of cosmetic products in the Norwegian population. http://www.vkm.no/dav/a729a67e65.pdf (accessed September 15, 2017)
11. Bundesinstitut fur Risikobewertung. (2014). Aluminiumhaltige Antitranspirantien tragen zur Aufnahme von Aluminium bei. (report in German). http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/343/aluminiumhaltige-antitranspirantien-tragen-zur-aufnahme-von-aluminium-bei.pdf (accessed September 15, 2017)
12. European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) (2014). Opinion on the safety of aluminium in cosmetic products SCCS/1525/14. http://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_153.pdf (accessed September 5, 2017)
13. European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) (2017). Request for a scientific opinion: Submission II on the safety of Aluminium in cosmetic products. March 2017. https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs2016_q_009.pdf (accessed September 17)
14. Sappino A.P.et al. (2012). Aluminium chloride promotes anchorage-independent growth in human mammary epithelial cells. Journal of Applied Toxicology 32: 233-243. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22223356
15. Darbre P. D. et al. (2013). Effect of aluminium on migratory and invasive properties of MCF-7 human breast cancer cells in culture. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry 128: 245-249. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23896199
16. Bakir, A. and Darbre, P. D. (2015). Effect of aluminium on migration of oestrogen unresponsive MDA-MB-231 human breast cancer cells in culture. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry 152: 180-185 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26365320
17. Darbre, P. D. (2006). Metalloestrogens: an emerging class of inorganic xenoestrogens with potential to add to the oestrogenic burden of the human breast. Journal of Applied Toxicology 26 (3): 191-197. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16489580
18. Mandriota, S. J. et al. (2016). Aluminium chloride promotes tumorigenesis and metastasis in normal murine mammary gland epithelial cells. International Journal of Cancer 139 (12): 2781–2790. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.30393/full
19. Darbre, P. D. et al (2013). Aluminium and breast cancer: sources of exposure, tissue measurements and mechanisms of toxicological actions on breast biology. Journal of. Inorganic Biochemistry 128: 257-261. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23899626
20. Mandriota, S. J. et al. (2016). op. cit.
21. Allam, M. F. (2016). Breast Cancer and Deodorants/Antiperspirants: a Systematic Review. Central European Journal of Public Health 24(3): 245-247. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27755864
22. Linhart, C. et al. (2017). Use of Underarm Cosmetic Products in Relation to Risk of Breast Cancer: A Case-Control Study. EBioMedicine 21 (2017) 79-85. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28629908
23. European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (2014) op. cit.
24. Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety. (2013). op. cit.
25. European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (2017). op. cit.
26. SWI (2017). Should anti-perspirants bear warning labels? Celia Luterbacher. SWI swissinfo.ch. https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/health-policy_should-anti-perspirants-bear-warning-labels-/43324172 (accessed September 5, 2017)
We would like to thank Professor Philippa Darbre, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading for her input and assistance in putting together this information
Page last updated: September 17, 2017