Talcum powder is a product made from talc, a mineral composed primarily of magnesium, silicon and oxygen. Talcum powder is typically found in powder form and used to absorb moisture and reduce friction. As a result, it helps to keep skin dry and prevent rashes. Talcum powder is used in a variety of cosmetic products like baby powder, adult body or facial powder and other common cosmetic products.
Johnson & Johnson, the largest healthcare company in the world, has sold Johnson’s baby powder since as early as 1894. The product is made of crushed talc. Johnson & Johnson baby powder was marketed to young mothers. As a result, this product was utilized by millions of mothers on their babies to absorb moisture in the diaper area as a genital powder. Other products made and sold by Johnson & Johnson, like Shower to Shower and Baby Magic, also use talc. Recent studies indicate that when applied directly to the genital area, talc powder is a risk factor for certain types of cancer.
Some talc contains asbestos. Asbestos is a known carcinogen that can cause cancer in and around the lungs when inhaled. The Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrances Association (CTFA) issued voluntary guidelines in 1976 calling for all talc used in cosmetic products in the United States to be free from detectable amounts of asbestos according to their standards. Since that time, talc products were supposed to be asbestos-free.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classifies talc products that contain asbestos as a human carcinogen. On the other hand, the agency classifies talc that does not contain asbestos as “not classifiable” as a human carcinogen. Genital use of talc, also called perineal use, has been classified as a possible human carcinogen.
The National Toxicology Program, formed as part of the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration, has not fully reviewed whether talc or talc powder is a human carcinogen.
How Do We Know if Talc Causes Cancer?
Typically scientists use both lab studies and studies on people to determine if a product or substance causes cancer. In lab studies, animals are exposed to a substance that is suspected to cause cancer in order to ascertain if the substance causes tumors or other health problems. If animals are not used, scientists can use normal cells and subject them to substances in order to determine if the substances cause the same type of changes that are seen in cancer cells.
If scientists choose to use studies on people to determine whether a particular substance, like baby powder, body powder or talc caused cancer, typically they look at the risk of cancer in a group that has been exposed to the substance and compare that to the population as a whole.
What Types of Cancer Could Be Caused by Baby Powder Use?
Specifically, there have been studies to ascertain if there is a link between talc exposure, baby powder use or talc particles and ovarian cancer, lung cancer, uterine cancer and stomach cancer.
Ovarian Cancer and Baby Powder
As early as 1971, scientists in Wales discovered a potential link between the use of talcum powder in the genital area with an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Tiny particles of talc were discovered to be embedded in both ovarian and cervical tumors.
The thought is that baby powder or talcum powder particles applied to the genital area whether by direct contact or on a sanitary napkin, diaphragms, or condom travel through the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes into the ovaries.
There is conflicting research on the matter among medical experts. The American Cancer Society points to case-control studies which show that the use of talcum powder causes a small increase in the risk of ovarian cancer. These studies have the potential for bias because they rely on a subject’s memory of talc use. A study by Dr. Daniel Cramer, who is the head of Obstetrics and Gynecology Epidemiology Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a Harvard epidemiologist found that women who used talcum powder were at nearly twice the risk for having ovarian cancer as non-users.
Studies in 2016 and 2017 indicate anywhere from a 20% to 33% increased risk of ovarian cancer. These studies significantly call into question the effect that talc-based products have on women’s health and the overall safety of talc.
However, prospective cohort studies have generally not found a significantly increased risk of ovarian cancer in women who used talc. There have been several prospective cohort studies that found a possible increased risk of ovarian cancer in women with intact reproductive systems.
Lung Cancer and Baby Powder
Studies have suggested that talc miners and millers have an increased risk of lung cancer. There are also studies that say there is no increased risk of lung cancer. Talc in its natural form can contain asbestos and other minerals. Also, miners can be exposed to additional substances that can cause cancer, like radon. There have not been any studies to indicate that there is an increased risk of cancer from the use of cosmetic talc.
The use of talc powder has been linked to mesothelioma. As the result of a recent lawsuit and resulting jury verdict, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay a California couple approximately $30 million for the wife’s mesothelioma.
Talc-Based Baby Powder Sales Halted
Recently, at least one batch of baby powder was found to have asbestos contamination. May of 2020, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would cease the distribution of talc-based baby powder in North America. According to the company, the decision was made based on a move to prioritize products that are used to combat coronavirus, otherwise known as covid-19 rather than as a result of ongoing litigation with cancer patients with regard to their consumer products like baby powder, Baby Magic and Shower to Shower body powder.
An investigation by Reuters recently revealed that Johnson & Johnson was aware that from as early as 1957 and 1958, a consulting lab noticed contamination in the company’s talc products that were needle-like, indicated the possible presence of asbestos. From 1971 to the early 2000s, Johnson & Johnson’s raw talc and finished talc powders sometimes tested positive for asbestos. Despite these findings, the company failed to disclose this vital information to either the public or government regulators. Now, many people are blaming their development of certain types of cancer on products that they used that were developed and sold by Johnson & Johnson.
If you have any concerns about your health, it is always best to start with a visit to your doctor. If you or a loved one has used Johnson & Johnson baby powder, you may be eligible for a lawsuit.