Talcum powder is frequently used to prevent diaper rash, absorb moisture and reduce friction. It is composed of talc, a mineral that mostly contains magnesium, silicon and oxygen.
Talcum powder has been used universally in American households for decades. Because of its ability to keep skin dry and reduce chaffing, talcum powder is used to prevent diaper rash and other minor skin irritations in infants. It is also a common ingredient in cosmetics, including loose and pressed face powders, powdered eye shadow and blush.
While it is often associated with baby powder, talcum powder is also used in many adult products such as body powders, foot powders, sanitary and incontinence pads, perfumed powders, deodorant powders and medicated powders. Talcum powder is also sometimes used for feminine hygiene, and was marketed to prevent vaginal odor.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using baby powders containing talc because it can lead to respiratory problems in infants. Many private pediatricians also make this recommendation. When it becomes airborne, talcum powder can cause coughing, wheezing and fast and shallow breathing. This may also eventually to talcosis, a type of acute or chronic lung irritation, in some individuals. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent states that there is a higher rate of serious chronic respiratory diseases and lung cancer in individuals who are exposed to talc long-term, such as miners and millers.
Talcum power is sometimes used for feminine hygiene, but for years there have been concerns that this type of use is associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, some are worried that it may cause cancer if talc particles travel through the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes to the ovaries. Some suspect that it would take years to dissolve once in the ovaries, and lead to inflammation. These concerns first gained ground in 1971, when talc particles were identified in ovarian cancers. Later on, The Lancet stated that “The potentially harmful effects of talc . . . in the ovary . . . should not be ignored.”
Use of talcum powder was linked to a three-fold increased risk of ovarian cancer in a 1992 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology After this, a number of studies were published documenting this link. In 2003, the journal Anticancer Research published a meta-analysis looking at 16 studies; it found a 33 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer.
In June 2013, the journal Cancer Prevention Research published a study which showed a 20 to 30 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer among women who used talcum powder for feminine hygiene compared to those who did not. The study was comprised of data from 2,000 women who used talc in the genital area. The authors wrote “Genital powder use was associated with a modest increased risk of epithelial ovarian cancer (odds ratio 1.24, 95% confidence interval 1.15-1.33) relative to women who never used powder. Risk was elevated for invasive serous (1.20, 1.09-1.32), endometrioid (1.22, 1.04-1.43), and clear cell (1.24, 1.01-1.52) tumors, and for borderline serous tumors (1.46, 1.24-1.72). Among genital powder users, we observed no significant trend (p=0.17) in risk with increasing number of lifetime applications (assessed in quartiles). We noted no increase in risk among women who only reported non-genital powder use. In summary, genital powder use is a modifiable exposure associated with small-to-moderate increases in risk of most histologic subtypes of epithelial ovarian cancer.”
A number of talcum powders users have filed lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson (J&J) over talc based baby powders and body powders. Allegedly, J&J failed to warn consumers that talcum powder could increase the risk of ovarian cancer despite having knowledge of it. In California, a class action lawsuit is pending alleging the company failed to adequately warn about the dangers of talcum powder. A class action lawsuit was also filed in Illinois. This class action complaint alleged that J&J presented its product as safe for women and infants despite evidence suggesting that it may be associated with ovarian cancer.
In October 2013, a South Dakota jury found that J&J failed to warn that talcum powder may be linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a woman who used Shower to Shower body powder for 30 years. In 2006, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The plaintiff had no other risk factors for ovarian cancer, the suit alleged. Additionally, three doctors found that her cancer was caused by Shower to Shower after examining the tissue through an electron microscope. One of the physicians who examined the plaintiff was Daniel Cramer of Harvard University, who has been investigating the association between talc and ovarian cancer for more than three decades. He testified that there are likely 10,000 cases of ovarian cancer caused by talcum powder each year.
In September 2013, the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation over J&J’s marketing practices for Shower to Shower body powder. A subpoena was issued to determine whether J&J had been marketing talcum powder as a feminine hygiene product.