Does Baby Powder Cause Ovarian Cancer?

Thousands of consumers have filed lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson and other manufacturers, claiming longtime use of their baby powder products resulted in an ovarian cancer diagnosis.

While the scientific link is still unclear, the issue has been brought into the spotlight by both ongoing research and these high-profile talcum powder lawsuits against these companies. Even though there is no consensus in the medical community, consumers should be aware of the potential risks of using talc-based products.

What is Baby Powder?

How does talcum powder cause ovarian cancer?

When a woman uses talcum powder on or near her genitals, talc particles can travel through the vagina and settle in the ovaries. These particles inflame ovarian tissues, producing cysts that can then lead to ovarian cancer.

Baby powder is a marketing term, originated by Johnson & Johnson. Today, the term refers to several powders used for cosmetics and hygiene. While some of these are used on infants for diaper rash and other issues, baby powder is also used by adult women to reduce feminine odors. Most baby powders are made from talcum powder, cornstarch or arrowroot, although other ingredients may be used in homemade recipes.

Talcum Powder

Talc is a naturally occurring clay mineral found in large deposits around the world. It is widely known as the softest mineral.

When crushed into a powder, talc is odorless and absorbent, making it ideal for whisking away bodily moisture and smells without interfering with the smell of scented products. Talc can be found in many cosmetic products, including powdered makeup, lotions and deodorant. It is also used in smaller quantities as an anti-caking agent for food and medications, such as rice, gum and medication tablets.

Cosmetics Containing Talcum Powder

  • Baby powder
  • Body powder
  • Blush
  • Bronzer
  • Face powder
  • Eyeshadow
  • Lip Balm
  • Foundation
  • Lotion
  • Face masks
  • Deodorant

In its natural state, talc is often found near asbestos, a substance known to cause the rare cancer of the lung linings, mesothelioma. Cosmetic companies are required to purify their talc before use to avoid contamination, however sometimes testing reveals products that still contain asbestos.

Cornstarch

Considered by some to be a safer alternative to talc, cornstarch is a carbohydrate found in corn, specifically in the corn kernel. For example, a 2000 review of literature published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology indicated that cornstarch was unlikely to be a risk factor for ovarian cancer.

Cornstarch can also be referred to as corn flour or maize starch and is produced by a process called “wet milling.” Many companies have replaced talc with cornstarch in products like powders, blush and bronzer. Others, like Johnson & Johnson, have decided to offer two lines of products containing different ingredients.

Arrowroot

Arrowroot is a starchy powder made from the root of several plants. As a powder, arrowroot has significant absorbing properties, and is often used as a thickening agent in cooking recipes.

Many “natural” cosmetic companies have chosen to use arrowroot instead of talcum powder, citing the risks associated with talc and cancer. Some beauticians also claim that arrowroot has additional benefits for the skin and hair, but these assertions are unproven.

Other Powders

A wide variety of other ingredients are often suggested for use in homemade body powder recipes as “natural” or “pure” talc-free powders. Examples include chickpea powder, baking soda, oat flour, and rice flour. Most of these ingredients have not been studied as a replacement for baby powder, and there is little knowledge about potential long-term safety issues.

Can Talcum Powder Cause Ovarian Cancer?

There has been debate around if talcum powder can cause ovarian cancer. Studies have found instances where tumors contained talc particles, making a link that the powder could eventually reach the ovaries after being applied to the genital area.

The connection was first suggested in 1971, when a group of gynecologic oncologists noticed that 75% of the tumors they investigated contained talc particles. Since then, many researchers have agreed that talc use increases the risk of developing cancer. Recently, a report from May 2016 determined that 63% of women with ovarian cancer had dusted themselves with talcum powder.

People who claim their ovarian cancer was caused by talcum powder have filed thousands of lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson and other baby powder companies. Several plaintiffs have won millions of dollars in compensation, leading lead many people to believe that a strong link exists between talc and ovarian cancer.

While some studies suggest a connection, however, others remain inconclusive. Furthermore, companies like Johnson & Johnson deny that any link exists based on the results of privately funded studies that failed to identify such a link.

Talcum Powder and Lung Cancer

Talcum powder has also been associated with lung cancer and other pulmonary issues, although studies have shown conflicting results. Additionally, because lung cancer is linked with asbestos, which can contaminate talcum powder, it is hard to separate and pinpoint the cause of the cancer.

There is more scientific support for a link between talcum powder and other lung-related issues, such as pulmonary talcosis, fibrosis, and granulomatosis. Infants are especially at risk for these conditions, so the use of talcum powder on babies is not recommended.

Talc miners are at a high risk of developing lung cancer, which has led to questions about talc’s connection with lung cancer. However, these miners are often in contact with natural pockets of asbestos, as well as exposure to higher levels of radon, a major risk factor for lung cancer.

Other Cancers

There have been some suggestions that talc may cause increased risks of other cancers. One study posited a risk for endometrial cancer, while other researchers question whether inhaling talc can put you at risk for stomach cancer, among other conditions. However, no significant study has shown definitive evidence that such a link exists.

Medical Studies on Talc and Ovarian Cancer

Research on the link between talc and ovarian cancer is still inconclusive. While many studies have found a correlation between talcum powder use and an increased risk of developing cancer, others have found no risk at all. The inconsistency leaves most scientists with the conclusion that more research into the topic is necessary.

One issue is how the studies are conducted. Several studies that show a possible connection were based on small subject numbers, surveys or individual case reports. Other studies that rely on an individual’s memory of using talc are considered biased. All of these methods are low on the spectrum of scientific trust. Meta-analyses of a range of studies cite the limitations of these studies, stating that the link is not clear.

The weightiest medical studies, called cohort studies, did not find a significant increase in cancer risk associate with talc.

Ovarian Cancer and Talc Studies

Study SizeConclusionSource
Meta-analysis of multiple early studies“…epidemiological evidence suggests that use of cosmetic talc in the perineal area may be associated with ovarian cancer risk.”Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, April 2008
66,028 women“…perineal talc use increases the risk of endometrial cancer, particularly among postmenopausal women”Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, April 2010
18,384 womenUsing genital powder has “a 20–30% increase in risk of developing epithelial ovarian cancer”Cancer Prevention Research, August 2014

What Experts Say About Talc and Cancer

While scientific debates persist, some governmental agencies have issued their own conclusions about the risks of developing cancer after using talcum powder for an extended period of time.

While the U.S. still allows the use of talc in cosmetics and personal hygiene products, the European Union has banned the ingredient from use. In addition to questions about the connection with cancer, several agencies cite concerns about the effects of long-term inhalation.

Expert Positions on Talc and Cancer

Agency/OrganizationPosition
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)Inhaled talc is “not carcinogenic” and talc applied to the genitalia is “possibly carcinogenic”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)No position on talcum powder safety, referring to the ongoing scientific debate
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)Prolonged exposure to talc may be a risk factor for “effects on the lungs, resulting in talc pneumoconiosis.”
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)“Repeated inhalation” of talc “might cause scarring of the lungs with shortness of breath, chronic cough and heart failure.”
The European Union (EU)Talc is banned in cosmetics due to health and safety concerns
Cancer Research UKNo proven correlation between talcum powder and cancer

What Jurors Say

Unlike scientists and agencies, juries have been overwhelmingly on the side of consumers. In recent cases, they have awarded up to $417 million to victims, who claim that companies like Johnson & Johnson did not properly warn them about the risks of prolonged talcum powder use. Plaintiffs claim that their daily use of talcum powder near their vaginas caused their ovarian cancer.

It is important to note that many of these lawsuits are based in issues of marketing. They do not try to determine if there is proof that talc causes cancer. Rather, the main charge is that companies producing talc products are aware of the possibility of health concerns, and should be doing more to warn their customers.

What to Do About Talcum Powder Exposure

If you or a loved one are worried about your exposure to talcum powder, there are easy ways to help reduce its presence in your life. If you’ve been diagnosed with ovarian or lung cancer, and think it may have been caused by your use of talcum powder, it’s important to speak with an expert.

Minimizing Talc Exposure

An easy way to minimize your talc exposure is to do a thorough clean-out of your cosmetic and hygiene products. Look at the ingredients on the back of each product and get rid of anything that calls out talc specifically.

There are hundreds of alternative products on the market, so your choices are not limited. Look for “talc-free” labels, or try “all-natural” brands that use cornstarch or arrowroot instead of talcum powder. (Note that talc is a naturally occurring mineral, so “natural” powders are not necessarily talc-free by default – always check the label!)

Medical Help for Talc-Related Illnesses

If you have used talc for many years and are worried about whether you may be at risk of developing ovarian cancer, talk with your doctor about whether you should pursue screening tests. Also talk to your doctor if you exhibit any signs of lung cancer or other lung problems due to sustained talc usage.

Legal and Financial Help for Talc Diagnoses

Medical treatment for talc-related illnesses can be costly and cause significant stress to you and your family. Many individuals who have developed ovarian cancer choose to file a lawsuit against talcum powder makers to help cover costs and receive compensation for their pain and suffering.

If you or a close relative have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer after using talcum powder, talk to an experienced lawyer who can evaluate your case and help you file a claim.

Contact a lawyer.

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