The dangers of no-sweat journalism

What Domini Torrevillas wrote for today’s edition of The Philippine Star is, by any measure, a rather pitiful excuse for a column, consisting as it does of text practically lifted wholesale from three separate e-mail messages that her friends had forwarded to her. This is not a practice exclusive to Torrevillas, of course—one columnist in another major daily did this so frequently that the paper had to ask that person to leave. In all fairness—and the defensive self-importance of some writers notwithstanding—writing is difficult work, and cranking out anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 characters for a coherent, compelling column at least once a week is not a task to scoff at.

To make such a concession, however, is not to excuse the writer from accountability. While the writer may not have to come up with anything especially original—whatever this might mean in the 21st century—it behooves him/her to ensure that the information he/she is disseminating is accurate and reliable, a notion that unfortunately does not seem to occur to or is dismissed by many journalists because of laziness, ignorance, or both. (A recent demonstration of these vices occurred during the furor over President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s lavish dinner at Le Cirque: a theoretical bill posted by Manuel L. Quezon III in his blog became reported as the actual bill by several media outfits.)

In the third section of her column, Torrevillas cites an e-mail from a friend—hardly a credible source—on the supposed dangers of using antiperspirants: antiperspirants are allegedly “the leading cause of breast cancer” among women. This claim is based on the following premises: first, that sweating allows one to purge toxins; and second, that an antiperspirant prevents one from sweating, and therefore from purging toxins.

In addition, men are supposedly less prone to cancer from antiperspirant use because the antiperspirant chemicals “are caught in their hair and are not directly applied to the skin”, while women who apply antiperspirants right after shaving increase their risk “because shaving causes almost imperceptible nicks in the skin which give the chemicals entrance into the body from the armpit area”.

That antiperspirant use leads to cancer has been floating around the Internet at least as far back as 1999, but no causality between the two has been firmly established up to this time. A fact sheet on antiperspirants and deodarants by the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) identifies three separate studies on the presumed relationship:

  • A 2002 study by Dana K. Mirick, Scott Davis, and David B. Thomas did not show any increased risk for breast cancer in women who reported using an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant. Nor was there  increased breast cancer risk for women who reported using a blade (nonelectric) razor and an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant, or for women who reported using an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant within one hour of shaving with a blade razor.
  • A 2003 study by Kris McGrath [PDF] suggested that underarm shaving with the use of antiperspirants/deodorants may be related to breast cancer, but failed to demonstrate a conclusive link between these underarm hygiene habits and breast cancer. (The McGrath study was used as a reference in a 2006 CBS news investigation [streaming video].)
  • A 2006 study by S. Fakri, A. Al-Azzawi, and N. Al-Tawil found that the use of antiperspirants had no association with the risk of breast cancer, while family history and oral contraceptives use were found to be associated.

According to the NCI, “additional research is needed to investigate this relationship and other factors that may be involved”. A 2003 monograph by the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), which established conditions under which over-the-counter (OTC) antiperspirant drug products are generally recognized as safe and effective and not misbranded, did not rule out the possibility of a link between antiperspirants and cancer—or indeed other diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease—but generally found that data pointing to the link was, at best, inconclusive.

Torrevillas does say that her readers should check with their respective doctors regarding these claims, but if she had bothered to do even the most perfunctory online research after checking her e-mail, she could have provided much better information and raised actual awareness instead of stoking unwarranted fear among women. She did not even have to wade through highly technical literature—all she had to do was review the entry on perspiration in Wikipedia, a resource that her colleague Carmen N. Pedrosa so loves. She would then have found out that sweat does not contain “toxins”, that oft-abused term of pseudo-medicine, at all. If toxins enter the body, it is the job of the kidneys and the liver to get rid of them—one cannot sweat them out. (On a related note, those popular “detoxifying” foot patches do not work, because such a manner of detoxification would involve what is thus far only fit for science fiction: turning one’s feet into a pair of auxiliary livers.)

My impression—which I wish were wrong—is that articles on beauty, health, and wellness tend to be particularly soaked in sloppiness, which is certainly the case here. Whatever the merits of scaring people into taking care of themselves may be, that journalists, especially lifestyle writers, settle for what is essentially paranoia-mongering instead of public enlightenment is irresponsible, unethical, and thoroughly deplorable.

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2 thoughts on “The dangers of no-sweat journalism

  1. It was nice to read this article and find some great reference for my research on antiperspirants and cancer.

    I will like to highlight one thing though. Antiperspirants might not be linked to cancer but they are known to cause other disorders like alzheimer’s disease.

    My opinion in the end is always stick to natural foods and life style as much as you can and only when necessary use antiperspirants.

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