Does Baby Powder Cause Cancer?

Talc-based baby powder does not actually cause cancer, even though lawsuits against a company that makes this product have fueled this speculation. Johnson & Johnson faced over 16,000 lawsuits over claims that their talcum powder (made from the mineral talc) products caused various types of cancer, including ovarian cancer and mesothelioma, in 2017. An official investigation into the claims was launched in 2019, which led to the discovery of asbestos in the baby powder. In March 2020, the company announced that they would no longer be selling or distributing their talc-based baby powder in both the U.S. and Canadian markets.

Johnson & Johnson was later ordered by a Missouri court to pay out $2.1 billion in awards to 22 women who said their ovarian cancer was a direct result of using Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products in June 2020. Research has not found claims that talc-based baby powder causes cancer to be true.

Baby powder on mother's hand, dust dangerous for health concept.

Anchalee Phanmaha / Getty Images

What Is Talcum Powder?

Talcum powder is a powder made from talc, a naturally occurring mineral that is made up of different substances such as magnesium, oxygen, hydrogen, and silicon. It has been used in many personal care as well as cosmetic products. With its ability to effectively absorb moisture, talc has been used to help people stay dry in hot weather or prevent makeup from becoming too cakey. Talc and asbestos are found close to each other in the earth, so when talc is mined, asbestos can sometimes become mixed up in it.

Scientists from Wales linked the dusting of female genitals with talcum powder to ovarian cancer back in 1971. However, this and other similar studies have not conclusively demonstrated such a link, or if such a link existed, what risk factors might be involved. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is conducting ongoing research to investigate this. Questions about the potential contamination of talc with asbestos have been raised since the 1970s. 

By 1976, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrances Association (CFTA) issued voluntary guidelines that required all talc-based products to be free from detectable levels of asbestos. But many companies continue to sell talc-based powders and products with levels of asbestos, as shown by an FDA investigation conducted in March 2020. It's important to note that the law does not require cosmetic companies to share safety information with the FDA.

Cosmetic Products That Contain Talc

Many products we use every day contain talc, including:

  • Eyeshadow, highlighter, and contour palettes
  • Setting powders
  • Bronzers
  • Blush
  • Body powders
  • Perfumes

What Does the Research Say?

It's important to note that the claims that talcum powder causes cancer is based on findings from animal and lab studies. In animal studies, animals are exposed to a substance to see if it causes tumors or other health problems. While this kind of studies has been widely used to test the safety of many products, the results seen in the animals being tested on may not accurately reflect those in humans.

In lab studies, researchers may also expose normal cells in a lab dish to a potentially carcinogenic substance to see if it causes the types of changes that are seen in cancer cells. Findings from this type of research may also not apply to humans.

Human studies rely on epidemiologic research since scientists clearly cannot test a potential carcinogen on human participants. Scientists may compare the cancer risk in a group exposed to a substance to the risk in a group not exposed to it, or compare it to what would be expected in the general population. It can be hard to know, though, what the results of these studies mean because many other factors may affect the results.

Uncontaminated Talc vs. Contaminated Talc

It is important to distinguish between talc that contains asbestos and talc that is asbestos-free when talking about whether talcum powder causes cancer. Talc that has asbestos is generally accepted as being able to cause cancer if it is inhaled. The evidence about asbestos-free talc is less clear.

Animal Studies

Results from the many lab and animal studies that looked into the cancer risk of talcum powder have been largely mixed. One study published in 2015 found that exposure to talcum by means of non-surgical sterilization saw no cancer formation, but the rats undergoing the process did experience toxic side effects. Similarly, a 2009 study found that when rodents received talc applications via the vagina, the risk of infection and inflammation increased, but no cancer was formed. A study published in January 2020 found that when ovarian cells in co-cultures were exposed to talc, cancer expression increased.

In all these studies, different amounts of talc and administration methods were used, which could have affected the results.

Epidemiological Evidence

There has been no clear evidence that cosmetic talcum powder causes cancer—namely that the rate of cancer among users of baby powder are little different from those who have not used baby powder. One study showed that the use of asbestos-contaminated talcum powders in cosmetics could lead to mesothelioma, but that finding does not apply to talcum powder alone.

Talc has been shown to cause cancer in other ways, however. For example, persistent inhalation of talc in occupational settings has been linked to lung cancer. Even so, studies involving Chinese talc factory workers could find no difference in the rate of cancer-related deaths compared to the general population. Most agree that it is highly unlikely the amount inhaled from baby powder would pose any real risk.

It has been suggested that talcum powder might cause ovarian cancer if the powder particles (applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms, or condoms) were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary. Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase. Two studies looked at the carcinogenic rates of talcum powder use using different methods, and both came up with insignificant results to back up the claims that it causes cancer.

The type of study conducted can also affect results. For example, many case control studies that have shown an increased risk following the use of baby powder rely solely on someone remembering their baby powder usage, which can be inaccurate. In prospective cohort studies, many more factors are taken into account, and the subjects are followed for a longer period of time. In the case of baby powder and ovarian cancer, many of the prospective cohort studies found no relation between the two for most women. The only caveat was that increased risk may be present in women with other risk factors of ovarian cancer.

Considering the unknown factors when it comes to baby powder and cancer, the American Cancer Society has advised people to discontinue or avoid use if they are concerned about the possible risk.

Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer comes with its own set of risk factors, including:

  • Age of over 40
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having children later in life or never carrying a child to term
  • Hormone therapy following menopause
  • Family history of ovarian, colorectal, or breast cancer
  • Family cancer syndrome
  • Fertility treatment

A Word From Verywell

Research has not clearly established whether talc-based baby powder or pure talc can lead to cancer from use or if other factors need to be present at the time of use to lead to cancer formation. It's important to note, though, that talc contaminated with asbestos can cause cancer because asbestos is a known carcinogen. Since there is no clear evidence to support that baby powder can cause cancer, the option to use or not use the product is entirely up to you.

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