One in 78 women (about 1 percent) will develop ovarian cancer in her lifetime. However, women who use talcum powder for feminine hygiene may be up to 30 percent more likely to receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis.
Unlike other types of cancer, there are no screening tests for ovarian cancer and it is rarely diagnosed early. The five-year survival rate drops from 93 to 30 percent once the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body. Early symptoms of ovarian cancer may include low abdominal pain or pressure, weight gain or loss, abnormal periods, gas, nausea, vomiting, and feeling extremely full after eating – which can be commonly mistaken for other ailments.
Given these concerns, you may be wondering, “What does science say about talc and ovarian cancer? Is it safe to use for feminine hygiene? Or safe to use on my baby?” The U.S. FDA and American Cancer Society urge caution, rather than openly discouraging the products’ use – which is still readily available on shelves.
Talc and ovarian cancer research
Johnson & Johnson maintains that the safety of talc has been confirmed by “decades and decades of research.” They can point to more than one study that has found no link between talc and ovarian cancer. However, there are conflicting reports that would make any informed woman take pause before sprinkling talc on a sanitary napkin.
- In 1971, talc and its possible connection to ovarian cancer first became an area of interest when researchers found that 75% of ovarian tumors studied contained talc particles.
- Later, in 1982, scientists identified a statistically higher incidence of ovarian cancer among women who used talc for feminine hygiene routinely.
- Meta-analysis conducted in 2008 did not rule out the possibility of a genetic link to ovarian cancer, but concluded that “some environmental exposures, notably talc and asbestos, have been suspected as ovarian carcinogens.”
- Pooled analysis of 8,525 ovarian cancer cases and 9,859 controls in 2013 found talc users had a 20-30 percent increased risk of developing epithelial ovarian cancer (including serous, endometrioid, and clear cell tumors).
- Research involving more than 4,000 women, published in the May 2016 edition of the medical journal Epidemiology, found that using talc on genitalia increased the risk of ovarian cancer by 33 percent.
New England scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that women who used talc and were sterilized prior to menopause, or women who took hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms, were more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Women who took the hormone estrogen were less vulnerable to developing an inflammatory response from talc.
- The African American Cancer Epidemiology Study of 2016 compared 584 African American women to 745 women without ovarian cancer in 11 geographic regions. In this study, talcum powder use was common to 63% of women with cancer and 53% of women without. Women who specifically used talc for feminine hygiene purposes were 44% more likely to have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Talc users had a 2% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer, compared to 1.3% in the average population.
- A 2018 review of 24 case-controlled studies concluded there was a “weak but statistically significant association between genital use of talc and ovarian cancer.”
The existing body of research is limited in that it involves case-controlled studies, where women are asked to recall whether they used talcum powder in the past, how often, and how it was used. Scientists are relying, in part, on patient recollection, which could prove faulty.
How can talcum powder cause ovarian cancer?
Still wondering exactly how can talcum powder cause ovarian cancer? There are several prevailing theories:
- Talc may contain small amounts of asbestos – a known carcinogen.
- Talc particles can travel through vaginal tissue and inflame ovarian tissue.
- Chronically inflamed ovarian tissue can lead to cyst development.
- Cyst development and inflammatory response in the body favors cancer cell growth.
Is talc in makeup bad for you?
Talc in makeup is not inherently bad for you. However, asbestos in talc in makeup IS very, very bad news.
Many cosmetic makers are moving away from talc these days. According to cosmetic chemist Victor Casale, co-founder of Cover FX and MAC, talc is not something he likes to use anyway because it’s “too chalky” compared to more natural-looking minerals like mica that disappear on the skin. Since the American Cancer Society does not list talc itself as a known carcinogen, he views it as generally safe for cosmetics, but does not use it for aesthetic purposes.
The asbestos, often tainting the natural talc as it’s mined, is most assuredly a known carcinogenic, however. Manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson swear their products have been free from asbestos since the 1970s, but a Reuters examination of internal documents, depositions, and trial testimony found that the company’s raw talc and finished powders “sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors, and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it, while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.” The documents also show J&J representatives attempting to influence scientific research on the health effects of talc and U.S. regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products.
Cosmetic makers generally turn to the Environmental Working Group and their EWG Skin Database to determine which ingredients are deemed “safe for use in cosmetics.” In March 2019, EWG Representative Scott Faber warned that many talc-based products could be contaminated with asbestos. Recent tests by the FDA found asbestos in several makeup products from the mall chain store Claire’s. They also discovered that more than 2,000 products and personal care items in their database contain talc, including 927 soaps, 1,051 pressed powders, 123 loose powders, and 18 aerosol sprays.
The federal government says there is “no safe level of asbestos exposure.” In fact, just a few days of exposure has been enough to cause mesothelioma and other deadly diseases. Up to 15,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-triggered conditions. The loose powders are of particular concern, as users can easily inhale these particles — leading to mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer.
Is it safe to use Johnson’s baby powder?
“Johnson & Johnson is currently facing 9,000 lawsuits over its talc-based products in state and federal courts,” said Morgan Statt, an investigator with ConsumerSafety.org. “But studies and expert opinions still fall on both sides of the argument.”
While scientists are split on whether baby powder can cause ovarian cancer, they do agree that inhaling baby powder, whether talc or cornstarch-based, can cause respiratory problems if the particles enter the baby’s lungs. Even small amounts of powder can irritate a baby’s tiny lungs, especially preemies, and those with asthma, Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or congenital heart disease.
For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics expressly cautions parents against using powders on your baby. If you must, put the powder on your hands, away from the baby, and use sparingly. Wash away any powder buildup that has accumulated since the last application. Vaseline or A&D Ointment is preferable to powder-based skin barriers.
What can you use instead of baby powder?
Since there is no medical necessity to baby powder, you may decide that it’s not worth the risk and consider using an alternative, such as:
- Cornstarch powder
- Arrowroot starch powder
- Tapioca starch powder
- Oat flour
- Baking soda
- Essential oil spray
- A&D ointment
- Zinc-based rash creams
What if I have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer after years of talc use?
Should you have any questions about the latest talc and ovarian cancer research, contact Showard Law Firm. Our personal injury attorneys have been involved in the developing litigation for years, and we specialize in matters of defective drugs and medical devices. We offer free consultations and representation with no upfront fees to all personal injury plaintiffs, so there is no harm in exploring your full set of legal options. A talcum powder lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson could provide money to cover medical bills, lost time off work, the toll of emotional hardship, and wrongful death benefits.