Talcum Powder and Ovarian Cancer
Talcum powder, or baby powder, is a common personal hygiene product. Many people use it to absorb moisture and reduce friction and discomfort and generally to stay fresh during a long day. It can be used on any part of the body, but it is regular use in the genital area that may lead to ovarian cancer in women.
Evidence is growing that regular, long-term use of talcum powder can lead to an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. There are several examples of women who used it for decades and then were diagnosed with this cancer. Some of those women or their families are filing lawsuits and winning in court, proving that companies like Johnson & Johnson are negligent in failing to warn consumers of the risks.
What is Talcum Powder?
Talcum powder, also known as baby powder, is a hygiene product made from a natural mineral called talc. Talc is a mineral mined from the ground, and it contains mostly silicon, oxygen, and magnesium. People have used talc for thousands of years but it only became widespread in the U.S. in the late 1800s, when it was found to be useful in industrial applications.
In hygiene products talc provides a smooth texture, as the particles when ground up are very fine. It is used in makeup and other beauty products to improve texture and absorption. Talcum powder and baby powder are often used by consumers to absorb moisture and to reduce friction between areas of skin that rub against each other.
Asbestos in Talc – A Possible Cause of Ovarian Cancer
Talc, because it is a natural mineral, often contains traces of other minerals when it is mined. One of these additional minerals is asbestos. Asbestos is natural, but it is also harmful to human health and is a known carcinogen. Accidentally inhaling, ingesting, or otherwise taking in fibers of asbestos can lead to tissue damage and cancer in some people. While mesothelioma is the cancer most often associated with asbestos, there is growing evidence that trace amounts of the mineral in talcum powder could trigger other types of cancer, including ovarian cancer in women.
The Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrances Association, a trade group that represents manufacturers of these kinds of products, adopted guidelines in 1976 to ensure that talc products would not contain asbestos. The guidelines were voluntary and stated that any asbestos found in natural talc would be removed so that consumer products would not have any detectable levels.
In spite of the guidelines designed to protect consumers from the harm of asbestos found in hygiene and other personal products, studies since the 1970s have found that talcum powder does still often contain the contaminant. One study tested several products and found that many contained asbestos that could easily be inhaled by anyone using them.
Another study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not find asbestos in talcum powder, but admitted that the study was limited. Critics of how asbestos is measured in talc say that the process is outdated and not sensitive enough.
Talcum Baby Powder and Ovarian Cancer
There are clear associations between regular and long-term use of talcum powder on the genitals and ovarian cancer in women. Studies have proven this link, although there is still only limited evidence that talcum powder is a definite cause. The connection between the two is strong, though, and the presence of asbestos, a known human carcinogen, is a reasonable explanation for how this product could lead to ovarian cancer.
One study of note compared talcum powder use and rates of ovarian cancer in over 1,000 women. The study compared the personal hygiene habits of nearly 600 women with ovarian cancer and about 700 women without that diagnosis. The study found that regular use of talcum powder on the genitals increased the risk of developing ovarian cancer by 44 percent. The lifetime risk of ovarian cancer for women who used talcum powder was significantly higher than for those who did not. Another study found similar results after investigating more than 8,000 women.
Also important was a study that investigated how talc could cause ovarian cancer. It may be that talc particles migrate from the external genital area to the interior, all the way to the ovaries. The study found that this is, in fact, possible. Researchers examined tissue from ovarian tumors and found that they contained particles of talc.
Ovarian Cancer Victims Get Justice in Court
In recent years women who developed ovarian cancer after decades of using baby powder products have been suing the companies responsible, most notably Johnson & Johnson. An important piece of evidence arose during a trial on behalf of Jackie Fox, a woman who died from ovarian cancer. Her family sued Johnson & Johnson and won a jury-awarded settlement of $72 million.
The family’s legal team presented evidence that the company knew there was a link between using baby powder and developing ovarian cancer. An internal memo made it clear the company was aware of the risk but continued selling the product with no warnings to consumers. This was a major win and proof that women like Ms. Fox deserved to be compensated for the damage talcum powder caused.
That case has been followed by many more, including a big win for 22 women who together filed a class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. The jury awarded $4.7 billion to the women, which included $4.14 in punitive damages to the company for failing to warn consumers of the risks of ovarian cancer from using their products. Not only did the women and their families in this case get such a big win, but the company lost a bid to get the award reversed. The jury’s decision was upheld by a judge.
There is a very real possibility that talcum powder can increase the risk and even cause the development of ovarian cancer in women who have used it for a long time. The longer the period of use and greater the regularity of use of baby powder, the bigger the risk is. Women need to know about this risk so they can make the right choice for hygiene. Companies like Johnson & Johnson are increasingly being held to account for asbestos and ovarian cancer, but the risk is still real and present.
Page edited by Dave Foster
- American Cancer Society. (2017, August 24). Talcum Powder and Cancer.
Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/talcum-powder-and-cancer.html
- Johnson & Johnson to pay $72M in Case linking Baby Powder to Ovarian Cancer. (2016, February 23). The Guardian.
Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/24/johnson-johnson-72-millon-babuy-talcum-powder-ovarian-cancer
- Gordon, R.E., Fitzgerald, S. & Millette, J. (2014). Asbestos in Commercial Cosmetic Talcum Powder as a Cause of Mesothelioma in Women. Int. J. Occup. Environ. Health, 20(4), 318-32.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4164883/
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2018, August 21). Talc.
Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductsIngredients/Ingredients/ucm293184.htm
- National Center for Health Research. (n.d.) Talcum Powder and Ovarian Cancer.
Retrieved from: http://www.center4research.org/talcum-powder-ovarian-cancer/
- Muscat, J.E. & Huncharek, M.S. (2008). Perineal Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer: A Critical Review. Eur. J. Cancer Prev., 17(2), 139-46.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621109/
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