Talc is a completely unnecessary hygiene product and safer alternatives, such as those based on cornstarch, exist. [Photo: Bigstock]

Talc’s disturbing link with ovarian cancer

5 May, 2016

This week a St. Louis jury ordered the Johnson & Johnson Company to pay $55 million (£38 Million) to a woman in South Dakota who claimed she developed ovarian cancer after 30 years regular use of the company’s talcum powder.

This was not the first such award. In February of this year, another jury in St. Louis awarded $72 million (£49 million) to relatives of an Alabama woman – another regular users of talcum powder – who died of ovarian cancer.

In the US there are estimated to be more than 1000 pending lawsuits allege that talc in the Johnson & Johnson products like Baby Powder and Shower to Shower caused ovarian cancer in women, and that the company failed to warn customers about the risks.

Johnson & Johnson, perhaps not surprisingly, are appealing the court decisions and maintain that their talc containing products are safe to use.

Feeling fresh?

For decades talcum powder has been the traditional mainstay of freshness.

What you need to know

» Two recent court cases against the Johnson & Johnson Company in the US have concluded that long-term use of talcum powder caused ovarian cancer. The company has been ordered to pay substantial damages. More than a 1000 other such cases are pending.

» The link between talcum powder use on the perineal area and ovarian cancer was first made in the 1980s and many, but not all, studies since then have affirmed the link. The evidence is strong enough that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARAC, a WHO agency) classifies talc used in the perineal area as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to humans.

» Talc is a completely unnecessary hygiene product and safer alternatives, such as those based on cornstarch, exist.

We use it liberally on babies’ bottoms and to absorb perspiration on hot summer days and nights. A few of us are old enough to remember our mothers having special dishes of talc in the bathroom which had big inviting powder puffs to help you dust your body, and most of the bathroom floor, with the stuff.

But time marches on and the romantic illusion of talc has all but broken down now.

Talc, or magnesium silicate, is made up of finely ground particles of stone. As it originates in the ground, and is a mined product, it can be contaminated with other substances. Asbestos is a good example, and reports about the talc used in crayon manufacture – a practice that is being phased out by some but not all manufacturers – being contaminated with this poisonous substance have cause alarm to every parent whose child has ever sucked a crayon.

Longstanding questions over safety

The harmful effects of talc on human tissue were first recorded in the 1930s. Because of the contaminants it contains inhaled talc has long been considered a potential human carcinogen and The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the WHO) has classified talc that does not contain asbestos or other contaminants, applied to the genitals as “possibly carcinogenic” in humans.

(The IARC review of the evidence, while long is painstaking and enlightening for anyone who wishes to work through it).

Since the 1980s several studies have linked talc to ovarian cancer; in them talc was observed in a number of ovarian and uterine tumours as well as in ovarian tissue. It has since been confirmed that talc, either dusted on the perineum or on the surface of underwear or sanitary towels, can reach the ovaries via ascent through the fallopian tubes. Disturbingly this accumulation can occur from a very early age – from the moment a parent starts sprinkling talc on a baby’s bottom.

Not all studies show a link between talc and ovarian cancer. But many do and while there is still debate about how much talc can increase the overall risk of ovarian cancer – and who might be most at risk – there is data to suggest that it can trigger a particularly aggressive form of the disease.

Other influential factors

Some studies have indicated that women who regularly use talc on their genital area face up to a 40% higher risk of developing ovarian cancer compared to non-users.

A 2003 meta-analysis looking at 16 studies involving 11,933 women found talc was associated with a higher risk of ovarian cancer, Researchers studied more than 2,000 women with ovarian cancer and a similar-sized control group who were free of disease. Overall, they found a 33% increase in the risk of ovarian cancer with genital talc use.

This study gave some interesting insights into possibly co-factors that raised a talc user’s risk of ovarian cancer. Women who used talc were more likely to be:

  • older
  • heavier
  • asthma sufferers
  • regular painkiller (analgesic) users

Premenopausal women, and postmenopausal women using hormone therapy, who had more than 24 years of talc use were at the highest risk of ovarian cancer.

There is a plausible mechanism by which talc could promote cancer – by triggering long-term inflammation.

Other sources of talc

The talc used in the manufacture of condoms carries a similar risk. In the 1960’s the medical journal the Lancet reported the first case of a woman who had a significant amount of talc in her peritoneal (abdominal) cavity. Laboratory tests confirmed that the talc in her body matched that found on the surface of her husband’s condoms.

The authors concluded that talc travelled up through the fallopian tubes and accumulated in her abdomen. Talc sprinkled on diaphragms may also be implicated in such problems.

Talc use is also associated with respiratory problems. Because it is comprised of finely ground stone it can lodge in the lungs and never leave. Babies whose mothers smother them in talc have more breathing difficulties and/or urogenital problems. Women are also at risk since even if they don’t use talcum powder on their bodies, they are likely to be using conventional cosmetics (powders, eyeshadows, blushers) that are talc-based.

Safer alternatives

Don’t use products containing talc. Giving up body powders is relatively easy. Giving up your favourite eye shadow or blusher may be less so (though good alternatives do exist).  But whatever you can do to cut your exposure to talc will benefit your health:

Make your own You can quickly and easily make a very efficient and inexpensive body powder based on cornstarch. Combine one part baking soda to eight parts of cornstarch. Mix these up in a blender and add 10-15 drops of your favourite essential oil (optional). Store in an airtight container (either a jar, or an old talc container or you can recycle one of those Parmesan cheese shakers). Alternatively, buy quality organic baby and body powders that use a cornstarch base.

Babies’ bottoms do not need talc or any other powder to stay fresh. Instead let your baby go without nappies as often as possible, or investigate cotton nappies which allow the skin to breathe and have been shown to cause less nappy rash than disposables.

Use talc frees condoms, but be aware that many talc-free condoms contain other particles such as silica, mica and diatomaceous earth and lycopodium (club moss) spores which may bring their own risks. Lycopodium can be contaminated with talc, sulphur and/or gypsum and is linked with inflammation of soft tissues. No research has ever been done on how many chronic “women’s problems” may be the result of over use of talc or indeed allergy to the latex used in condoms or other contraceptives such as the diaphragm and all the paraphernalia which goes with them (spermicidal jellies, foams, creams and lubricants).

Look for talc free cosmetics. There is no research to suggest that talc exposure via cosmetics such as eyeshadows or blushers causes any human disease, but why take the risk? Quality organic cosmetics tend to use a cornstarch base which is considered safer.

Do what you can to reduce your risk. As with most cancers, the risk of ovarian cancer increases with age. Women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer may also be more likely to develop ovarian cancer. But things like diet, smoking, exposure to synthetic chemicals and talc use which increase the risk of ovarian cancer are choices we can control. See our article: Q&A: Natural support to stop smoking and our news report Most cancers are preventable – so what are we doing to prevent them?