The Grapevine

Is Talc Powder Safe? What To Know About Potential Cancer Risks

From the sweet-smelling fragrance to the wholesome marketing, many people see talc powder as nothing more than a harmless product for hygienic and cosmetic use. However, there have been lab reports dating as far back as the 1950s which have raised suspicions regarding the health effects of talc.

Take, for instance, this study from 1971 which found talc particles when examining tissue from patients with ovarian cancer tumors. This was attributed to the presence of asbestos, a cancer-causing substance which can be found in underground deposits of talc. This prompted a stricter quality control to make sure all talc products were asbestos-free, required by federal law since 1973.

However, you may recall how Johnson & Johnson, the brand which is near-synonymous with talc powder, was sued by numerous women who claimed that their products actually did contain asbestos, causing their ovarian cancer.

Earlier this year, J&J was ordered to pay $4.69 billion to 22 women after a jury agreed with the aforementioned link. The plaintiffs said they used J&J talc powder in the genital area on a daily basis, which possibly caused ovarian exposure to asbestos.

According to the New York Times, some have even argued that the talc exposure itself caused ovarian cancer. However, this is believed to be based on flawed science. 

While the company has insisted that their products are safe and free of asbestos, a new Reuters report alleges that J&J knew their products were contaminated — information that was supposedly kept hidden for decades.

While the subject has been thrust back into the spotlight, you may wonder why talc powder is still sold and used amid such concerns. Though some studies have found an increased risk of cancer, others have found no risk at all. On the whole, the scientific community is yet to find compelling evidence, calling it inconclusive at best.

While the debate continues, experts do have tips for how consumers can be more careful with their use of talc products. As you may have guessed, it is not a good idea to apply talcum powder anywhere near your vagina. Since the powder particles are so small, there is a risk of them migrating from the vagina to the ovaries.

The same applies to baby powder — the fine particles can cause breathing issues and lung problems for babies, as stated by the American Academy of Pediatrics. If you must use it, make sure the amount is minimal and make sure the product is not inhaled.

There are other ways to reduce the risk of a diaper rash such as the use of cornstarch instead of talc. "Whenever practical, having a baby’s bottom bare is the best remedy," said Michael Grosso, chief medical officer at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital in New York.

"Of course that isn’t practical a lot of the time. Many pediatricians, myself included, recommend a petroleum jelly based product, whether plain Vaseline or A+D Ointment," he told USA Today.