Talc, also known as talcum powder, is a naturally occurring mineral made up of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen that is highly stable, chemically inert and odorless. Talcum powder is generally accepted as safe for cosmetic and personal use, as it is known to absorb moisture and prevent friction, thereby functioning to keep skin dry and prevent rashes. Most people are aware of its presence in baby powder and adult body/facial powders. When found naturally, talc can contain asbestos, a known carcinogen when inhaled. However, all consumer talcum products have been required to be asbestos-free since the 1970s. Still, there are concerns that there may be a link between talcum powder and cancer. These concerns have focused on two main risk groups. People who have long-term exposure to natural talc fibers at work, talc miners for example, may be at a higher risk for lung cancer as a result of inhaling talc fibers while on the job. The other risk group is women who regularly apply talcum powder to the genital area, as they may have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Although companies that manufacture talcum powder products, most notably Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder, repeatedly claim their products are safe and non-cancer causing, some studies have surfaced that have highlighted the link between genital talcum powder use and ovarian cancer. The first study linking the two was in 1971 published by several Welsh doctors in which talc particles were found in tumors of the cervix and ovaries. After this initial study, numerous other studies were completed and published, many supporting the link between genital talc use and ovarian cancer. Recently, a report released by Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention claimed a 44 percent increased risk for invasive epithelial ovarian cancer among African American women who applied talc to their genitals regularly. Johnson & Johnson still holds that its baby powder is safe, although several claims against the company have resulted in multimillion-dollar awards by the company.
Of the dozens of studies involving talcum powder and cancer, many supporting the link between talcum powder and cancer, and many providing no evidence between the substance and cancer at all. The studies that allege a relationship between talcum powder and ovarian cancer argue that by dusting female genitals or feminine products with talcum powder, talc particles can enter the vagina, travel in the uterus, and finally to the ovaries. The products were targeted towards women, with manufacturers noting the appeal of a powder that could keep women comfortable and free of vaginal odors. Johnson & Johnson, although has been the recipient of several claims regarding ovarian cancer and their body powder products, has claimed that the research linking talcum powder and cancer is inconclusive and has failed to place any sort of warning label on its products. Since 2013, the drug manufacturer has spent over $5 billion to resolve various legal claims regarding Johnson & Johnson drugs and medical devices. Julie Hennessy, a marketing professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, commented on the lawsuits saying, “Whether or not the science indicates that Baby Powder is a cause of ovarian cancer, Johnson & Johnson has a very significant breach of trust.” Aside from the cancer risk, these products are made for babies. If there is a potentially cancerous element to Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder, parents should be made aware, shouldn’t they? The only label that the product does have warns against inhalation, saying it is for external use only. Although some lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson have been successful and resulted in damages paid to the claimants, it may be some time before enough studies conclusively prove that there is a link between the talcum powder products and ovarian cancer. Continue reading