Talcum Powder and Ovarian Cancer
Many people use talcum powder to keep skin dry and avoid rashes. The product has been the focus of scientific research and media scrutiny due to its possible link to ovarian cancer. But does talcum powder cause this disease?
What is talcum powder?
Talc is a natural mineral mainly consisting of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. A crushing and refining process is what turns talc into talcum powder.
Talc works well as a powder because it wicks away moisture and reduces chafing. You can find it in baby and adult body powders powder, facial powders, and many other products.1
Talcum powder concerns
The practice has dwindled over the past 50 years, but many women still use talcum powder to absorb genital moisture and odor. They sprinkle it directly on the genitals, sanitary napkins, tampons, diaphragms, or underwear.2
Some talc naturally contains asbestos, a mineral fiber known to cause cancer. Investigative media reports found that consumer product company Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that their talcum powder contained asbestos and failed to remove it. The company faced thousands of lawsuits from people who claimed asbestos in the powder led to their ovarian cancer and another type of cancer called mesothelioma.1,3
In 2019, a jury in St. Louis, Missouri, ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay nearly $4.7 billion in damages to 22 women and their families in the ovarian cancer lawsuits. The company willingly recalled its talcum powder in the U.S. and Canada in October 2019 after testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found asbestos in a sample.4,5
Does talcum powder cause ovarian cancer?
Scientific studies into the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer date back to the 1970s, but the connection is still unclear. The question is whether talcum powder particles applied to the genital area and on products that touch this area can migrate to the ovaries.
Most of the data is from what researchers call case-control studies. Researchers asked women whether they used talcum powder in the past, where on their body they used it, and how often. These studies show that women who have used talcum powder are around 30 percent more likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who have never used it.6,7
Let’s put this number into context. Ovarian cancer is rare; just over 1 percent of all women are diagnosed with the illness. So if a woman who uses talcum powder has a 30 percent higher chance of getting ovarian cancer, this means her risk increases from 1.3 percent to 1.7 percent.8
Researchers have also found that women who use talc and have gone through menopause may face a higher risk of ovarian cancer. They think that the hormone estrogen may play a role in lowering your chances of developing the disease.
A larger, more recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2020 did not discover a compelling link between powder and ovarian cancer. Researchers looked at data from more than 250,000 women across 4 studies who had not previously been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Here are some of their findings:9
- In total, 38 percent of women said they use powder in the genital area.
- Long-term use of powder (at least 20 years) equaled 10 percent.
- Frequent use of powder (at least one time a week) added up to 22 percent.
Over an average of 11 years, 2,168 women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Slightly more women who used powder developed ovarian cancer compared to those who never did, but the numbers were not scientifically significant. The study also did not find a meaningful difference between women who applied powder to their genitals frequently or over the long term versus women who did not use the product.
Scientists continue to investigate talcum powder and its possible ties to ovarian cancer, and research results are mixed.
The study published in JAMA is the largest to date to examine whether powder raises womens’ risk of the disease. It is a prospective study, which is considered less biased than earlier case-control studies that depend on womens’ memories of using talc years earlier. But, this research still has drawbacks. The authors acknowledge that because ovarian cancer is rare, their study may still be too small to discover a higher chance of developing the illness.9,1
There is also concern that researchers have neglected to closely study Black women, a group that commonly uses powder in the genital area. One study shows that Black women who use powder have a 40 percent higher chance of ovarian cancer.10
Until we know more, those worried about talc should consider avoiding products with it.
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