On Monday, a Missouri jury ruled that Johnson & Johnson, a household name in the consumer goods industry, must pay $72 million to the family of the late Jacqueline Fox. The company’s talc-based baby powder allegedly contributed to her death from ovarian cancer, according to the Associated Press.
And while Johnson & Johnson will probably appeal the decision, the rest of us are now left wondering, “Wait—can using baby powder really cause ovarian cancer?”
Well, here’s the thing: We wish we could give you a resounding, emphatic “no way.” But the answer to this question is murky.
So what is talc, exactly?
Talc is a naturally occurring mineral found in baby powders as well as other cosmetic and personal care products, and it's good at absorbing moisture, cutting down on friction, and preventing rashes. For many years, parents used it to diaper babies, until doctors began discouraging it for health reasons. As for adults, many still use it around their genitals or rectum to prevent chafing or sweating, says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Services at Yale School of Medicine.
As the American Cancer Society points out on it’s website (the organization declined an interview request from Health), talc in its natural form may contain asbestos, a known carcinogen.
The FDA does not allow talc-based products to contain any asbestos. But the trouble is, cosmetics don’t have to be reviewed or approved by the FDA before they land on store shelves, so there’s no guarantee that they haven’t been contaminated.
In light of this concern, the FDA visited several retail outlets in the Washington, D.C., metro area and bought and tested a variety of cosmetic products containing talc across a wide range of prices for a study that ran from 2009 to 2010. They found no traces of asbestos in any of the products.
But of course, that doesn’t prove that all talc-based products are asbestos-free.
Can “asbestos-free” talc cause ovarian cancer?
As of now, it’s unclear. The FDA says that literature dating back to the 1960s has suggested a possible association between talc powders and ovarian cancer.
But “the data is wishy-washy,” says Dr. Minkin. “Some studies haven’t found a connection, and other ones have only shown a small increase in the hazard ratio [or risk]. And there are lots of different variables in these studies for researchers consider.”
For example, one 2013 study analyzed nearly 20,000 people and found that those who used any type of powder down there were 20% to 30% more likely to have ovarian cancer than those who didn’t use any powder. The findings led the researchers to suggest that “avoidance of genital powders may be a possible strategy to reduce ovarian cancer incidence.” However, researchers pointed out a few of the study’s limitations: Participants might have overestimated how often they used these products, and not all powders contain talc—some contain cornstarch instead (more on that later).
Then, a 2014 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute looked at data from about 60,000 women and found no link between powder use and ovarian cancer risk.
Back in 2010, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) concluded that there is “limited evidence in humans” that using talc-based body power on the genital areas is “carcinogenic,” and stated that using it down there is “possibly carcinogenic in humans.”
Robyn Andersen, PhD, an ovarian cancer researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, says that when she works with women with ovarian cancer, she asks them about their use of talcum powder. “We know it’s a possible risk factor, we just don’t know how [big] of a risk factor it is,” she says.
Andersen says that because the powder is made up of such finely-ground particles, it might be able to travel up the mucus membranes in the vaginal canal and eventually work its way into the ovaries. Once there, the powder might cause inflammation and eventually cancer.
What you should know
On the company website, Johnson & Johnson states that its talc-based products are asbestos-free, and cites that FDA study mentioned above, which found no asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder. The company also points out that “[v]arious government agencies and other bodies have also examined talc to determine the potential for any safety risks, and none have concluded that there are safety risks. In fact, no regulatory agency has ever required a change in labeling to reflect any safety risk from talc powder products.”
That said, if all of this is enough to creep you out (understandably), you've got other options aside from talc-based powder. Some baby powders contain cornstarch instead of talc, and there is no evidence linking cornstarch to ovarian cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Something else to keep in mind: when it comes to vaginal health solutions, sometimes less is more.