Baby Powder’s Surprising Health Risks

Women have been shocked to learn that baby powders, products found in almost every medicine cabinet across the country, have been linked to ovarian cancer. Still, few are aware that medical researchers have been producing evidence of this troubling link for more than thirty years. Today, that’s beginning to change, now that thousands of cancer patients have filed lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, the nation’s leading manufacturer of talc-based baby powders, and several juries have handed down major verdicts, awarding women who developed ovarian cancer millions of dollars.

Beyond Ovarian Cancer: Baby Powder Dangers

Parents have been using baby powders, commonly derived from the mineral talc, for over a century. At the time, the powder’s use was almost exclusively confined to child care, as mothers, fathers and nurses across the country applied liberal dustings of the stuff to their children’s bottoms and diapers. As a deodorant and moisture-absorber, baby powders were second to none, and soon a talc-based powder could be found in almost every nursery in America.

Talcum Powder

American consumers came to assume that baby powder was innocuous, a product that couldn’t possibly be harmful. It has “baby” right in the name, after all, and we would never use a dangerous product on our children. Right?

Is Talcum Powder Bad For Babies?

But the use of talc-based baby powders is actually discouraged by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Breathed in or swallowed, talc can be a cause of poisoning. Lungs are particularly sensitive because, unlike every other major organ system except the skin, they’re constantly exposed to environmental irritants. Skin, though, is “far more advantageously structured to defend against external noxious agents,” Harvard physician Gareth Green wrote in a 1968 paper that’s still being cited today.

With immature lungs that are still developing, infants are particularly susceptible to the product’s harms, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Inhalation usually occurs during a diaper change, although it’s also common for children to begin playing with a bottle of baby powder, only to accidentally spill the powder itself over their face. Once powder is inhaled, it reaches the lungs, obstructing the delicate network of passages (“bronchioles”) that fill with air as we breathe. Of course, lungs are outfitted with a mechanism to clear unwanted particles out of your system. But talcum powder actually short-circuits the body’s natural defenses, drying up the mucus membranes that line bronchioles.

Even physician-assisted techniques like bronchoalveolar lavage, in which fluids are squirted into the lungs, prove largely ineffective because talc isn’t water soluble. In the absence of more effective treatments, bronchitis and pulmonary edema, a condition in which the air sacs fill with fluid, are likely.

Baby powder is bad for babies. The vast majority of pediatricians say it shouldn’t be used on young children. That begs the question: why is Johnson & Johnson still allowed to market the product explicitly as a “baby” powder?

Talcum Risks Are Old News

Talc’s dangers for babies aren’t a recent revelation. As early as 1969, physicians were writing in to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ venerable journal Pediatrics about the issue. In his own letter, Dr. Malcom Moss explained that, while “most pediatricians” of the time were aware that talcum powder could damage a young child’s lungs, “little [had] been done to publicize” the risks for the public’s benefit.

Twelve years later, little had changed. In another letter to the editors of Pediatrics, four poison control experts from New York again highlighted the severe dangers of baby powder inhalation, reviewing a report of 25 babies who had inhaled talcum powder. Five of the children had died. But research on the problem, and any true effort to discover how often talcum powder was harming babies, was non-existent. In their letter, the poison control experts could only point to Moss’ estimate of the incidence, made more than a decade earlier.

Today, many parents are still unaware of baby powder’s risks. Only five years ago, Monica Bielanko, a mother and writer at Babble, was shocked to learn that pediatricians almost universally advise parents to stay away from talc baby powders. What’s the alternative? When manufacturers began to understand that talcum powders could harm, not help, children, many started removing talc entirely from their products. Some companies switched to cornstarch-based powders, which present their own respiratory risks, but aren’t quite as dangerous.

What Is Talc?

Talc is a naturally-occurring mineral, composed mainly of the minerals magnesium and silicate, along with water. The softest mineral ever discovered, talc can range from white to green in color. As a mineral, talc is mined from the earth, most notably in:

  • the northeastern United States
  • southern Brazil
  • central France
  • eastern China
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • northern India
Clibberswick Talc Quarry

Clibberswick Talc Quarry, in Scotland’s Shetland Islands (Mike Pennington) / CC BY-SA 2.0

From studying miners and millers who are exposed to talc on a regular basis, researchers have arrived at inconsistent results on the mineral’s link to lung cancer. Government studies have found that talc miners are more likely to develop lung diseases and lung cancers than members of the general public. Other researchers have attributed increased deaths among miners, even those caused by lung ailments, to smoking and other environmental exposures.

Despite disagreements among academics, the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health believes that talc is responsible for many deaths among talc workers world-wide, and has set federal limits on the level of acceptable exposure within the workplace.

The product even has a medical condition named after it, “talcosis,” a form of lung irritation that can be either acute or lead to chronic breathing problems. Strangely enough, talcosis is linked to heroin use, because talc is occasionally used to adulterate pure heroin, increasing the drug’s weight and thus its sale price.

Talc Uses

Most talc-based baby powders contain around 90% talc, with either magnesium carbonate or zinc oxide making up the remainder. But this isn’t the only house-hold product in which you’ll find talc. In fact, talc is everywhere, and baby powder amounts to a relatively minor use of the mineral in the US.

Talc is used as a filler in manufacturing plastics, increasing the material’s heat-resistance and stiffness. It’s also used to increase the strength of ceramics, from dinner plates to bathroom fixtures. Talc is important in many house-paints, which are already suspensions of solid minerals in a liquid, since the mineral’s particle shape helps the color stick to walls without sagging. Roofing material, usually a type of asphalt, is often mixed with talc to increase its weather resistance.

The mineral is also used to make paper, filling the gaps between organic plant fibers. In the world of cosmetics, talc isn’t confined to baby powders. Since the mineral is exceptionally soft, and can be rubbed onto the skin without risk of abrasion, it’s used in many blushes and foundations.

In general industry, talc is used as an anticaking agent, added to powdered or granulated substances to prevent the formulation of lumps. In this aspect, talc can be found in animal feeds, fertilizers, tablet medicines and even table salt. In Japan, talc was often mixed in with rice, until several studies, including this 1971 paper published in Science, found a link between the mineral and stomach cancer.

Here’s how talc use broke down in America for 2011, according to Geology.com:

  • Plastics – 26%
  • Ceramics – 17%
  • Paint – 16%
  • Paper – 16%
  • Cosmetics – 7%
  • Roofing – 6%
  • Rubber – 3%
  • Other – 9%

Even if you don’t use baby powder, chances are you touch a talc-containing product every day. That doesn’t mean you should be constantly worried about your exposure. Talc’s primary health risks have all been linked to regular usage, primarily in close contact to body orifices. For babies and talc workers, that means the mouth, a direct conduit to the lungs. Decades of research say women who use the product in feminine hygiene applications may be at a similar risk, as talc particles can readily enter through the vagina and come to irritate the ovaries.