24 August 2016

Does Talcum Powder Cause Cancer?

Talcum powders, like Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower To Shower, have been linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer for more than 30 years. But women across the country have only begun to file cancer lawsuits over talcum powder recently.

What Is Talcum Powder Made Of?

Talcum powder is made out of talc, a naturally-occurring mineral.

Talcum Powder Infographic

Talc is composed mainly of the elements:

  • magnesium
  • silicon
  • oxygen

Talc comes out of the ground as a clay-like substance, according to Geology.com, which can look white, grey or green depending on where it’s been mined. There are talc deposits all over the place, but most of the mineral that’s used for consumer products is mined in China, northern India, France, South Korea, southern Brazil, Finland and the northeastern United States.

World Map Of Talc Mining Operations

Talc is all around us in another way, too. While you may not know it, the mineral is used in numerous (and we mean numerous) consumer applications – from plastics and paints to pharmaceutical drugs and foods. Talc is a common additive to animal feeds, along with fertilizers and pesticides, so it’s a good bet that most of us ingest trace amounts of the mineral on a regular basis.

Uses Of Talc Infographic

By some measures, talc is the softest mineral on earth, at least of those humans have discovered. Talc is also an astringent, which means that it can constrict body tissues. Astringents tighten the skin, drying up moisture and reducing friction. That’s why talc was initially pegged as the ideal ingredient for a powder intended to prevent diaper rash.

Is Baby Powder Talcum Powder?

Not always. As a rule, baby powders are astringent powders used as a deodorant, for feminine hygiene and to prevent diaper rash. But that doesn’t mean talc powder is the only astringent that can be used in a baby powder. In fact, many baby powders are now made almost entirely from corn starch, and don’t contain any talc at all.

This distinction isn’t an accident – and it’s not unimportant. During the 1970s, most manufacturers stopped using talcum powder in their baby powders after researchers discovered that some talc deposits also contained asbestos fibers. Asbestos causes cancer, specifically lung, larynx and ovarian cancers. So most companies quickly switched to corn starch. One of the only companies to continue using talc in its baby powders was Johnson & Johnson, which manufactures two of the most popular baby powders in the world.

Is Talc Powder Safe Or Bad For You?

Most of us have, or have had at some point, a bottle of baby powder lying around the house. Many of us have used the product for decades, applying powder to our baby’s bottoms and our own most sensitive areas on a daily basis. Talcum powder, especially Johnson’s Baby Powder, is quite possibly one of the most trusted products in the world. It’s marketed for use on children, after all, so how dangerous could it possibly be?

The vast majority of pediatricians say baby powder isn’t even safe for babies. If an infant inhales the stuff (and imagine how hard it would be to avoid any inhalation), baby powder can injure a child’s lungs, leading to serious damage and even death. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents against using baby powder at all.

Can Talc Powder Cause Ovarian Cancer?

Imagine waking up one day to learn that a product you thought was perfectly safe, a product you’d been using for decades, actually gave you cancer. Maybe you don’t have to imagine it. Thousands of women say that their habitual use of talcum powders led them to develop ovarian cancer.

The first studies to find a link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder were published in the 1970s. But many of the powders back then still contained dangerous levels of asbestos. Researchers were understandably dubious. Even though women who used baby powders habitually appeared to be at an increased risk for ovarian cancer, it might be asbestos, and not talc, that was causing the problem. But after asbestos had been removed from talcum powders, further research continued to find a troubling link. Women who had been using powders containing only talc, the world’s softest mineral, seemed to be more likely to develop ovarian cancer.

How Could Talc Powder Cause Cancer?

We even have a plausible theory to explain how talcum powders could cause ovarian cancer. It’s actually pretty simple. Particles of talc can enter through a woman’s vagina and travel to the ovaries, inflaming the organs continually over the course of decades of repeated use. That chronic inflammation could lead to genetic mutations, which may themselves contribute to the growth of cancerous tumors.

To date, dozens of studies have found that women using talcum powder as a feminine hygiene product are more likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who don’t use talcum powder (you can find our in-depth guide to this research here). But Johnson & Johnson continues to deny any link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, on the other hand, lists talc as “possibly carcinogenic” when applied to the genitals. Women, however, have never received a public warning about the association between ovarian cancer and talc powder – despite years of mounting medical evidence. Many consumers are justifiably angry about this lack of public warning, especially considering that a perfectly good alternative to talc – corn starch – is readily available in the US.

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