Does Talc Cause Cancer?

Studies of talc's cancer-causing potential have mixed findings

Talc, a mineral often used in cosmetic and personal care products, has been linked to ovarian and uterine cancer and mesothelioma. While cancer patients have brought thousands of lawsuits against companies that use talc in their products, it’s important to note that scientific studies have not conclusively found a cause and effect.

Talcum powder

Bundit Yuwannasiri / EyeEm / Getty Images

Talc is a soft, lustrous mineral typically found in rock buried in the earth. The rock is mined and then milled. The extracted and ground talc is used in a wide variety of products, but the ones that garner the most attention are personal-care items like baby powder (aka talcum powder) and cosmetics.

The main purpose of talc in these products is to absorb moisture and oil, reduce skin friction and odor, prevent caking, and create a smooth feel.

What Is Talc?

Talc, technically known as hydrous magnesium silicate, is a mineral that’s naturally found in the earth. It’s made up of magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen.


In its natural state, talc may contain the mineral asbestos, a substance known to cause cancer, especially when inhaled. In 1976, manufacturers of cosmetic and personal-care products were asked by the trade association that represents them to voluntarily remove asbestos from the talc they use.

However, it’s a standard that’s not formally enforced, and concerns about talc’s possible link to cancer still exist, particularly among those who work mining talc and in those who have used talc-containing products. 

Products That Contain Talcum Powder

Talc can be found in everything from paper to plastics to personal-care items. It’s used to make roof shingles, as an anti-stick agent in chewing gum, to prevent corrosion and increase adhesiveness in paint, to give printability to paper, to impart silkiness to cosmetics like blush and eye shadow, and to help process rubber into tires, among many other things.

The vast majority of talc used in the United States is found in plastics, ceramics, and paint. Only a fraction is used in cosmetics.

Asbestos in Talcum Powder

Although talc and asbestos are two different minerals, they’re both found in the earth in close proximity to each other, making it easy for one substance to contaminate the other when it’s mined. According to some sources, 1 gram of talc can contain millions of fibers of asbestos.

Manufacturers try to prevent this cross-contamination by carefully selecting mining sites and testing samples to make sure they contain talc only.

Asbestos has been deemed a cancer-causing agent to humans by groups such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Association agency. Exposure to asbestos can lead to a variety of cancers, including:

  • Lung
  • Larynx (voice box)
  • Mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer that affects the lining of the chest and stomach

Manufacturers of cosmetics and personal-care products have—theoretically at least—worked to remove asbestos from their talc products. But the substance can still be found. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has conducted testing on cosmetics and found asbestos in certain samples of baby powder, blush, eye shadow, and other products.

Ovarian Cancer

Several studies, including a large-scale one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, have found a small increase in ovarian cancer in people who’ve used talc products in their genital area. The increase jumps from a lifetime risk of 1.3% to 1.7%. The IARC notes that while the research is limited, the findings are “unusually consistent.”

It’s thought that asbestos in talc, or even the talc itself regardless of any asbestos contamination, may cause inflammation in the body that can lead to cancer. But researchers can’t say for sure how or even if talc causes cancer. That’s because many of the studies are based on what scientists call case controls.

Women with ovarian cancer (the cases) are compared to women without ovarian cancer (the controls) and are asked to recall their use of talc products in the past. Women with ovarian cancer have reported more use of talc products in their genital area, but that doesn’t prove the talc caused the cancer. 

Talcum Powder Lawsuits

Tens of thousands of lawsuits have been brought against companies that sell talcum-based powders by people who say it has caused their cancers. Some of those lawsuits have been settled for billions of dollars.

Johnson and Johnson, a leading manufacturer of talcum-based powders, says verdicts that have been through the appeals courts have been overturned. Still, citing declining demand due to “changes in consumer habits and fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising,” the company has decided to stop selling its talc baby powder in the U.S. and Canada.

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that affects the lining of certain parts of the body, particularly the mesothelial cells (called pleura) that line the chest. It’s a fairly uncommon cancer, with only about 3,000 cases diagnosed a year (by contrast, more than 200,000 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed each year).

The biggest risk factor for developing mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. It’s thought that when asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can penetrate the pleura and cause irritation, leading to cancer.

Those at highest risk tend to be people who’ve worked around asbestos, which has been used in insulation, construction, automotive plants, and other industries. But some studies have linked mesothelioma to repeated use of cosmetic talcum powder contaminated with asbestos.

Lung Cancer

The American Cancer Society reports that using talcum powder has not been shown to increase the risk of developing lung cancer, and studies looking at whether those who mine and process talc have higher rates of lung cancer have been mixed.

Given the fact that miners/millers are exposed to a lot of different minerals, including asbestos, when they extract and process talc, it’s difficult to know what particular agent may be the cancer culprit.

Uterine Cancer

One study looking at more than 66,000 women found that those who used talcum powder in the perineal region (the space between the vagina and anus) did not have a higher risk of endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterine lining) unless they were postmenopausal.

Women who used talc and were past menopause had a 21% to 24% increased risk of developing endometrial cancer. Other studies, however, have found no link.

Other Cancers

There’s no good evidence to show that talc use can raise the risk of other cancers, but experts note that research is limited and more studies need to be done.

Prevention

Products containing asbestos-free talc are generally considered safe to use, but there’s no foolproof way to know if the talc product you’re using is completely without asbestos. If you’re at all concerned about talc and its possible connection to cancer, stop using talc products. Read the products list of ingredients and avoid products that contain:

  • Talc
  • Talcum powder
  • Magnesium silicate


If you’re a fan of baby powder, you might try powders that contain cornstarch, another moisture/oil absorbing ingredient, instead of talc.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using talcum powder on babies. Powder particles can be inhaled by babies when the product is applied, irritating lungs and causing breathing problems. 

A Word From Verywell

Research showing a talcum powder/cancer connection has been problematic. Some researchers asked study subjects to rely on memory recall, and that’s never a sure thing. Other studies may have shown a link but not a definite cause and effect.

Still other research was funded by companies that make talc products or by law firms that represent those looking for compensation, making their impartiality a question. But even research that’s weak or inconclusive can be concerning.

To identify products containing talc, read labels. Stop using any product if you’re worried about its possible effects on your health.

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