The Dark Side of Talcum Powder: Debate Lingers Over Its Health Risks

Talcum Powder Bottle

Talcum powder seems harmless, right?

It’s soft and light, and most brands are pleasantly perfumed.

But there’s a dark side to the fluffy white powder.

Asbestos, the mineral linked to mesothelioma, was an ingredient in the talc mixtures found in talcum powder. Occupational studies from the 1960s showed toxic asbestos fibers could accumulate in the ovaries of some women who used those products, possibly leading to an ovarian cancer diagnosis.

While it’s known that inhaling or ingesting asbestos increases the risk of developing mesothelioma, there were inconsistencies in those studies concerning ovarian cancer.

Luckily, most consumer-grade talc products stopped containing asbestos in the 1970s. So should I worry about the talcum powder I buy in the store? Perhaps.

A 2006 report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, shows use of nonasbestos talcum powder is “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on limited evidence from human studies.

Meanwhile, the American Association for Cancer Research in 2013 published a study suggesting the use of talcum powder without asbestos “is associated with a modest 20-30 percent increase in risk of developing epithelial ovarian cancer.” Ovarian cancer is the fifth-most common cancer among women.

While researchers say there is still not enough evidence to show concise conclusions, these studies raise concerns for me. I used talcum powder as a child, and I also applied it to my children — as many women have been doing for years.

History and Controversy over Talc Products

Johnson & Johnson introduced talcum powder to the public in 1883. The company promoted it for controlling moisture and preventing rashes on babies.

After World War I, the drugmaker launched the biggest advertising campaign in history, resulting in its talcum powder becoming the most used and trusted baby product in the world. Despite its long-lasting success in the market, the company’s product has come under scrutiny a few times.

In 2013, health officials in India found a chemical used to sterilize medical equipment and kill bacteria in J&J’s baby powder had not been fully removed from the product at the local plant before products were shipped to stores. The chemical, ethylene oxide, is a known carcinogen.

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Other Health Concerns About Talc

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate ingredients in cosmetics, with the exception of color additives, the agency had received several concerns about possible asbestos in cosmetic products.

The FDA conducted a study between 2009 and 2010 to address those concerns in products containing talc, including eye shadow, blush, foundation, face powder and body powder.

The results: “No asbestos fibers or structures [found] in any of the samples of cosmetic-grade raw material talc or cosmetic products containing talc.” But the FDA admits the results were limited because “only four talc suppliers submitted samples.” J&J supplied the FDA with its baby powder.

“For these reasons, while FDA finds these results informative, they do not prove that most or all talc or talc-containing cosmetic products currently marketed in the United States are likely to be free of asbestos contamination.”

Whether talc contains asbestos or not, there are other problems associated with talcum powder.

The National Institutes of Health shows that accidental or long-term inhaling or swallowing of talc dust — especially in infants — can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Coughing
  • Throat irritation
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Convulsions
  • Lung failure
  • Coma fever
  • Blisters

For these reason, some doctors consider it unsafe.

Personal Experience with J&J’s Baby Powder

The sweet smell and silky feel of Johnson and Johnson’s baby powder is something I came to know early in my life. According to my mother, she sprinkled it on my bottom at every nappy change and dusted my torso with after she bathed me.

When I was old enough to bathe myself, I continued this ritual. It became as familiar to me as cleaning my teeth.

My pleasant association with J&J’s baby powder lasted into adulthood. When I eventually married and had children of my own, it seemed natural to use it on them as my mother had done with me.

Had I known then what I know now, I would not have used it at all.

Alternatives to Talc-Based Powders

Johnson & Johnson also produces a body powder using corn starch instead of talc for those who prefer avoiding possible health risks.

Personally, I prefer to make my own body powder these days. At least I can be 100 percent sure that it does not pose any risk to my health.

Making your own body powder is fun and much easier than you might think. All you need are a couple of household items, including a funnel, plastic spoon, some container for the powder (like an empty pill bottle), organic corn starch or bentonite clay (which you can order on Amazon.com), and essential oils if you want it scented.

 

Whatever choice you make about using or not using body powder, it’s important to remember to be mindful about the products you use on your body and your loved ones, especially when there could be a health risk.

  1. FDA. (2014, March 19). Talc. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/ingredients/ucm293184.htm
  2. Cancer Prevention Research. (2013, June 12) Genital powder use and risk of ovarian cancer: a pooled analysis of 8,525 cases and 9,859 controls. Retrieved from http://cancerpreventionresearch.aacrjournals.org/content/early/2013/06/12/1940-6207.CAPR-13-0037.full.pdf
  3. International Agency for Research on Cancer. (2006, February 27). Talc: Perineal use of talc-based body powder (Group 2B), Inhaled talc not containing asbestos or asbestiform fibres (Group 3). Retrieved from http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/PDFs/93-talc.pdf
  4. National Institutes of Health. (2014, June 27) Toxicology and Carcinogenesis Studies of Talc (CAS No. 14807-96-6), (Non-Asbestiform) in F344/N Rats and B6C3F1 Mice (Inhalation Studies). Retrieved from http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/results/pubs/longterm/reports/longterm/tr400499/abstracts/tr421/index.html
  5. American Cancer Society. (2014, May 13). Talcum Powder and Cancer: What is talcum powder? Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/talcum-powder-and-cancer
  6. The Hindu BusinessLine. (2013, April 25). J&J’s licence to make baby powder cancelled. Retrieved from http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/companies/jjs-licence-to-make-baby-powder-cancelled/article4654358.ece

Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net

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