It was in the news recently that Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay a whopping $417 million to a woman who claims she developed ovarian cancer after using their baby powder for decades since she was 11. This isn’t the first time the company has been involved in a lawsuit over its popular powder—and it will likely face hundreds more cases in the future, according to Reuters.
There have been concerns for years that using talcum powder, particularly in the genital area, may increase the risk of ovarian cancer but the evidence is not conclusive. Talc is a naturally occurring mineral, mined from the earth made up of magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen (Hydrous Magnesium Silicate). As a powder, talc is a great absorbent – absorbs moisture and oil, helping the skin feel soft, fresh and dry. It also reduces friction and chafing that can irritate the skin. Talc has many uses in cosmetics and other personal care products like baby powder, face makeup, toothpaste, antiperspirant etc. It is also used in ingested products like chewing gum, tablet manufacturing and to improve the texture of rice.
In its natural form, some talc contain asbestos, a substance known to cause cancers in and around the lungs when inhaled; however, asbestos-free talc has been used in baby powder and other cosmetics since the 1970s. The FDA (U.S Food & Drug Administration) does not allow talc-based products to contain any asbestos. But the trouble is, cosmetics do not have to be reviewed or approved by the FDA before they land on store shelves, so there is no guarantee that they have not been contaminated.
As of now, it is unclear if asbestos-free talc cause ovarian cancer. Scientific studies over the years have produced a mix of results. The American Cancer Society says studies on talcum powder and ovarian cancer “have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase. For any individual woman, if there is an increased risk, the overall increase is likely to be very small.” The National Cancer Institute (NCI) concludes, “The weight of evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer.”
The majority of studies that have found a link between talc and ovarian cancer relied on people remembering things they did a long time ago. These studies also have important weaknesses. People may not accurately remember how much talc they used in the past, and women with ovarian cancer may be more likely to remember using talc than women who don’t have cancer. This might skew the results. Scientists agree more research is needed to understand how talcum powder could potentially cause cancer. One hypothesis is talc applied to the genital area can migrate up the vagina to the ovaries, causing chronic inflammation that eventually results in malignancies. But that is only a hypothesis.
Knowing that evidence is not conclusive is scary so my advice is that you do not use talcum powder around your genital area, when it comes to vaginal health, sometimes less is more. Also know that there are other options available, some baby powders contain cornstarch instead of talc, and there is no evidence linking cornstarch to ovarian cancer (for now), according to the American Cancer Society.
Photo Credit: Bloomberg, Express UK