In 2017 a Los Angeles jury awarded $417 million (approximately R6 billion) to a woman suffering from ovarian cancer who alleged that her illness was linked to the talcum in Johnson & Johnson baby powder.
This sparked a myriad of questions about the safety of talcum powder, especially since 2 000 other women filed similar cases.
How dangerous is talcum powder?
Talcum powder consists of ground up talcum (a mineral made up from magnesium, silicon and oxygen). Talcum is one of the softest minerals – in powder form, it’s great for absorbing moisture and avoiding friction and skin rashes, hence its popular use as baby powder.
According to the American Cancer Society, some talcum sources contained asbestos, which is linked to lung cancer. But since the 1970s, all talcum products are asbestos-free. Talcum used in cosmetic products does not contain asbestos.
It is also claimed that talcum cannot cause respiratory problems as it’s milled to a large, non-respirable particle size, according to Cosmetics Info.
What products contain talcum?
Even if you don’t use baby powder, talcum is still found in many other household and cosmetic products. (With talcum being a relatively affordable mineral, it’s a popular filler in cosmetics)
- Pressed cosmetic powders
- Processed foods. It's used as an anti-caking agent – talcum was for instance used in Japan to improve the texture of rice until it was linked to the increased risk of stomach cancer.
- Food supplements and vitamins – as an anti-caking agent.
- Eye shadow
What about the link between talcum and ovarian cancer?
The talcum scare came after several women linked their ovarian cancer to the prolonged use of talcum powder around their genital areas, since talcum works well to contain moisture and prevent rubbing and rashes.
According to the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, talcum, like asbestos, has been studied in relation to cancer risks. Studies conducted over the past 25 years have established that there is a link between the use of talcum powder and ovarian cancer.
However, these studies have also found that talcum is not genotoxic – that means that when the DNA of talcum is altered, it can't cause mutations and won't be harmful. Mechanistic, pathology and animal studies have not found evidence of any carcinogenic effect. In summary, these data do not indicate that talcum is a direct cause of cancer.
If the carcinogenic effect of talcum cannot be proven, how did Johnson & Johnson lose the court case? According to a previous report, research found no link, or at best a weak one, between ovarian cancer and the use of baby powder for feminine hygiene. Most major health groups have also declared talcum harmless. Still, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies genital use of talcum as "possibly carcinogenic", which means that there is a chance that it can cause cancer.
In this court case, the firm that handled the case cited research from the 1970s that started drawing connections between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. These case studies showed that women who regularly use talcum in the genital area can increase their ovarian cancer risk with up to 40%.
Should you avoid talcum?
The link between cosmetic talcum powder and ovarian cancer is weak, and not causal, according research published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. While talcum exposure poses an extremely small health risk, it is recommended that prolonged exposure of talcum to the genital areas be avoided. Choose a corn starch alternative instead if you use powder for moisture absorption.
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