Deane Berg was the first of thousands to sue Johnson & Johnson for allegedly concealing the link between baby powder and ovarian cancer.
She’s not wrong. Early research did find an association between the use of talcum powder and ovarian cancer. Dating back to 1971, researchers found evidence of talc particles in ovarian and cervical tumors. A 1982 case-control study compared 215 women who used talc in the genital region with 215 women who did not. Those who used talc on the perineum or as a dusting powder on sanitary napkins were 2 times more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Even scarier, those who used talc for both of these reasons were 3 times more likely to get ovarian cancer.
Since then, more research has surfaced citing small-to-moderate increases in ovarian cancer risk from talcum powder use in the genital area. A 2016 study conducted on African Americans found that both genital and nongenital use of baby powder was linked to a greater risk of ovarian cancer.
Even The Canadian Cancer Society lists “using talc on the genitals” as a potential risk factor for ovarian cancer. A possible mechanism lies in the fact that talc crystals can travel up the genitourinary tract and eventually reach the ovaries. It is worth mentioning that talc is generally mined in proximity to asbestos, a known carcinogen, so manufacturers must take precautionary measures. However, both The Canadian and American Cancer Societies ensure that talc products (including cosmetics like blush) are asbestos free.
I should mention that powder made with cornstarch instead of talc is not believed to increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
“There is no way we’re ever going to know for certain that any exposure is necessarily causal to a disease” – Dr. Shelley Tworoger, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard.
Because no randomized control trial has ever been nor ever will be conducted, we can not determine cause-and-effect. Simply put, we cannot say that talcum powder causes ovarian cancer, but we can say that it may increase the risk. Nevertheless, this increased risk is very small.
Dr. Steven Narod, a senior scientist at the Women’s College Research Institute, put it beautifully:
- Among Canadian women living until age 80, about 10 in 1,000 will get ovarian cancer.
- Among regular talc users, about 12 in 1,000 will get ovarian cancer.
- When compared to women who have the BRCA1 gene, which substantially increases their risk of breast cancer, about 400 in 1,000 will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
So, although there is a risk in using talcum powder on your genitals, it is very small. Texting and driving, smoking or having unprotected sex with a stranger are all risks people take every day, each with a higher chance of an unfortunate outcome.