Johnson & Johnson were recently ordered to pay $72 million dollars damages to the family of a woman called Jacqueline Fox who died from ovarian cancer.
She passed away in October 2015 after battling cancer for three years, an illness she attributed to using Johnson & Johnson’s Shower to Shower and Baby Powder products for many years. The case has naturally raised the question of just how safe these products are, i.e., does talcum powder cause cancer?
So let’s take a closer look at the evidence. First, we need to understand what exactly talcum powder is.
What is talcum powder?
As you probably know, talcum powder is a beauty product that’s used to keep skin dry and to prevent rashes. We make talcum powder from a natural mineral called talc, which we mine from the ground. The talc mineral itself contains a few different elements, but is mainly composed of:
Some natural talc can also have asbestos in it, but cosmetic products containing talc have been free of asbestos since the 1970s (in the U.S. at least). So, if indeed it does so, how does talcum powder cause cancer?
How does talcum powder cause cancer?
Scientists accept that talc containing asbestos can be a cause of cancer if it’s inhaled. And as a result, talc miners are at an increased risk of lung cancer.
But as we just mentioned, talc with asbestos in it is no longer used in cosmetics. So what about the talc that you find in modern beauty products? Is it safe or does talcum powder cause cancer?
The answer is unfortunately that the link between talcum powder and cancer is still unclear.
Many laboratory experiments have been carried out on animals, and these have shown mixed results.
Likewise, many studies have been done on people to try and establish a link, but again the results have been inconclusive. Some studies have shown no link while others have shown up to a 20% increase in the risk of cancer, particularly ovarian cancer among women.
The problem with such studies is that the results are subject to being skewed by the participant’s biases as they rely on the participants reporting their talc usage. The risk is that many people don’t remember exactly how much talc they’ve used and either under-estimate or over-estimate their usage.
The only way to establish a definite link is to carry out proper clinical trials. But that would mean exposing women to talcum powder and then observing them to see if they do develop ovarian cancer. And this is obviously not practical for ethical reasons.
Conclusion – is talc bad for you?
To summarise, it’s likely that there is a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer and this is especially true if you regularly apply the talcum powder to the genitals. Indeed, the IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization) officially classifies talcum powder as possibly carcinogenic when applied to the genital area.
It’s important to keep in mind that any link probably only results in a small increase in your risk of cancer. For example, the rate of incidence of ovarian cancer in U.S. women between 2008 – 2012 was 12.1 women per thousand. So a 20% increase in the risk only equates to a rise in the rate to about 14.5 per thousand.
Still, if you’re concerned about the risks and want to play it safe, then you should avoid using talcum powder. And of course, you can consider using an alternative talc-free powder instead.