Is Using Baby Powder Linked to Cancer?

In 2017, a jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $417 million in damages to a 63-year-old woman in Los Angeles who developed ovarian cancer after using the company's talc-based baby powder for decades. Like many women who use baby powder to freshen up or reduce chafing between their thighs, on their genitals, or in their underwear, 63-year-old Eva Echeverria was unaware of the potential link between ovarian cancer and talc, a mineral used in some types of baby powder.

It wasn't the first time the company had been accused of causing cancer from their baby powder, and it wouldn't be the last. Earlier that year, a Missouri jury awarded $110 million to a woman who alleged that her cancer was caused by baby powder. And in 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled some of Johnson & Johnson's baby powder because it contained asbestos, a known carcinogen.

Does Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder Contain Asbestos?

A Reuters investigation has found that Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that its baby powder could be contaminated with asbestos. Documents show that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company's talc powders "sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos," according to the news organization, "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."

Johnson & Johnson maintained that its baby powder is not dangerous. On its "Facts About Talc" website, Johnson & Johnson stated that "thousands of tests" have repeatedly confirmed that its consumer talc products do not contain asbestos, and they cited several studies that found no overall increase in ovarian cancer risk among women who used talcum powder versus women who didn't.

All of this may leave you wondering, "So...can using baby powder 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. Here's everything we know so far.

So What Is Talc, Exactly?

Talc is a naturally occurring mineral found in baby powders as well as other cosmetic and personal care products. It is most commonly used to:

For many years, parents used it to diaper babies, until healthcare providers began discouraging it for health reasons.

As for adults, many still use it around their genitals or rectum to prevent chafing or sweating, said Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services at Yale School of Medicine.

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.

Can “Asbestos-free” Talc Cause Ovarian Cancer?

As of now, it's unclear. The FDA stated that literature dating back to the 1960s has suggested a possible association between talc powders and ovarian cancer.

But "the data is wishy-washy," said 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 [to] consider."

For example, one study analyzed nearly 20,000 people and found that those who used any type of powder near their genitals 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 avoiding the use of powders on the genitals to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

However, the 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.

Then, another study looked at data from about 60,000 women and found no link between powder use and ovarian cancer risk.

Robyn Andersen, PhD, an ovarian cancer researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said 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," Dr. Andersen said.

Dr. Andersen said 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.

A Quick Review

That said, if all of this is enough to creep you out—understandably—you've got other options besides talc-based powder. Some baby powders (including some by J&J) contain cornstarch instead of talc, and there is no evidence linking cornstarch to ovarian cancer.

So even though the research is limited, if you're concerned about baby powder causing cancer, it may be best to stick to baby powder that contains cornstarch instead of talc.

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  1. Reuters. J&J ordered to pay $417 million in trial over talc cancer risks.

  2. American Cancer Society. Talcum powder and cancer.

  3. Reuters. J&J ordered to pay $110 million in U.S. talc-powder trial.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Baby powder manufacturer voluntarily recalls products for asbestos.

  5. Reuters Investigates. Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its baby powder.

  6. Facts About Talc. The facts on talcum powder safety.

  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Talc.

  8. Terry KL, Karageorgi S, Shvetsov YB, et al. Genital powder use and risk of ovarian cancer: a pooled analysis of 8,525 cases and 9,859 controls. Cancer Prevention Research. 2013;6(8):811-821.

  9. Houghton SC, Reeves KW, Hankinson SE, et al. Perineal powder use and risk of ovarian cancer. JNCI Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2014;106(9):dju208-dju208.

  10. American Cancer Society. Ovarian cancer risk factors.

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