Is Talcum Powder Safe? Johnson & Johnson Ordered To Pay Millions After Baby Powder Linked To Ovarian Cancer Death

24/02/2016 12:26 | Updated 24 February 2016
  • Rachel Moss Lifestyle Writer at The Huffington Post UK

For years talcum powder has been a bathroom cabinet staple for many families around the world.

But on Tuesday, a US jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $72 million (£52 million) to the family of a woman whose death from ovarian cancer was linked to her use of the company's talc-based Baby Powder.

Reports suggest 1,000 other cases linking talcum powder to cancer have been filed in Missouri state court, and another 200 in New Jersey.

So, should we be worried?

johnsons baby powder

According to Cancer Research UK, before the 1970s talcum powder was often contaminated with asbestos fibres which are known to cause cancer. But since then, all home products containing talcum powder are legally obliged (under EU law) to be asbestos-free.

However, talcum powders today often contain a mineral compound called talc. Some scientists have suggested that talc particles could travel to the ovaries, irritate them and cause inflammation, which may in turn increase an individual's risk of ovarian cancer.

Several studies have looked at these links, with varying results.

According to ovarian cancer charity Ovacome, in 2003 the results of 16 studies involving 12,000 women showed that using talc increased the risk of ovarian cancer by around a third.

Although this may sound alarming, to put it into context the charity points out that smoking and drinking increases the risk of oesophageal cancer by 30 times.

In addition, both Cancer Research and Ovacome highlight that the majority of studies on the topic have been "case-control studies" - meaning that results are gathered from participants with ovarian cancer remembering something they did in the past.

"People may not accurately remember how much talc they used in the past, and women with ovarian cancer may be more likely to remember using talc than women who don’t have cancer. This might skew the results," the Cancer Research UK site explains.

"While on the whole studies have seen a modest increase in the risk of ovarian cancer in women who use talc on their genitals, the evidence isn’t completely clear. So we can’t be sure whether or not talc itself could cause ovarian cancer."

Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, Ovacome’s chief medical adviser Sean Kehoe added: "Animals have been tested to see if talc could cause female cancers - but the results were negative, though the talc caused inflammation of the tissues.

"But as there is no need to use perineal talc, it would seem reasonable to avoid a possible risk, which still requires clarification."

There has only been one large scale study into the links between ovarian cancer and talc that didn't rely on cancer patients recalling their past talcum powder use.

Scientists at the University of Melbourne analysed data from more than 78,000 healthy women that included details of how often they used talc-based products.

The women recorded their talc habits over a number of years and between 1982 and 1996, 307 of them were diagnosed with epithelial ovarian cancers (cancer that starts in the surface layer covering the ovary).

The scientists said there was "no overall association" between talc use and ovarian cancer. Participants who used talc were found to have no higher risk than participants who didn't.

Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, Katherine Taylor, chief executive of Ovarian Cancer Action said: "If you’re currently using talc, don’t panic. Given evidence is inconsistent we do advocate a 'better safe than sorry' attitude and advise that women using talc on their genitals stop doing so.

"But it’s important to remember that the suggested increased risk from using talcum powder is very small.

"While the relative increase of a third suggested by some studies sounds significant, the absolute risk of getting ovarian cancer still remains very low. We’re talking about the difference between a 2% risk and a risk of 2.5%."

Sarah Williams, Cancer Research UK’s health information manager, added: "Scientists are studying the link between women using talcum powder on their genitals and ovarian cancer and so far the evidence doesn’t give a clear picture.

"If there were a link, any increase in risk would be fairly small, and as ovarian cancer is a relatively rare disease, overall women who use talc would still have a low chance of developing the disease. ​

"More research is needed to work out what role, if any, talc use plays in ovarian cancer."

Meanwhile Johnson & Johnson has said they believe cosmetic talc is safe.

Carol Goodrich, a spokesperson from the company, said: "We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers, and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial.

"We sympathise with the plaintiff's family but firmly believe the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence."

Tap on the picture to launch slideshow

Ovarian Cancer: Signs To Watch Out For

Also on HuffPost:

CONVERSATIONS