What is Talcum Powder?

talcum powder

Talcum powder is made from talc, a mineral composed of hydrated magnesium silicate (magnesium, silicon, and oxygen). Talc is also used in manufacturing in a variety of industries, including paint, paper, rubber, ceramics, electric cable, chalk, food, and pharmaceuticals. Talc is also found in a number of cosmetic items. Talcum is the softest known mineral and in its powder form is most commonly used for bath and beauty powders.

Talcum powder is popular as a bath and body item because of its ability to absorb moisture. In its natural form talc is typically gray, green, or white, and it has a greasy texture. Most commercial talcum powders are white in color and have a soothing, drying effect on the skin that helps prevent the friction that causes heat rash. It can also be effective for reducing or eliminating body odor. Many people concerned about odor or discomfort from humidity use it under their arms, on their thighs, and in the genital area, especially during warmer weather. Talcum powder has also been used on non-toilet trained children to prevent diaper rash, though many alternative products exist today that do not contain talc.

Talcum Powder Ovarian Cancer Risk

Through the course of the last four decades, medical professionals and users of talcum powder have expressed concern over the potential danger related to talcum powder’s use. In its natural form, talc might contain asbestos, which is a known carcinogen when inhaled. Talcum powder products have been marketed as asbestos-free since the 1970s, but there is still concern over whether users might still be exposed to asbestos when using talc products. Research has shown invasive serous cancers, one of the more common types of cancer linked to talcum powder use, closely resembles mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer associated with exposure to asbestos.

In addition to past concerns about asbestos exposure, recent concerns have arisen concerning the use of talcum powder in the genital area and the development of ovarian cancer. There is some evidence that using talcum powder could increase the risk of reproductive cancers.

How Talcum Powder Increases Risk for Ovarian Cancer

There is some debate over how exactly use of talcum powder affects the health of the reproductive system. Many believe that when the powder particles are applied to the genital area, or to a sanitary napkin, condom, or diaphragm, they are able to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes into the ovaries.

One study conducted on the experimental basis showed that carbon particles deposited in the vagina traveled into the fallopian tubes within 30 minutes. Data has shown approximately 75% of ovarian tumors contain embedded talc particles.

Talcum Powder Cancer Studies (dating back to 1971)

The first study examining the link between talc and ovarian cancer dates back to 1971. It was at this time researchers found talc in ovarian tumors. Researchers determined 75% of all ovarian tumors contained talc and determined that if talc body powder is applied to the genitals, it could migrate through the body. A decade later in 1982, the New York Times suggested that Johnson & Johnson, a huge manufacturer of talcum powder, was fully aware of the risk of women developing ovarian cancer from the product used on the genitals.

Two different types of studies have been used to asses the risk of using talcum products. The first type of study evaluates cancer rates in various groups of people. For instance, the cancer rate in a group of people exposed to talcum powder is compared to the cancer rate in a similar group not exposed. The other type of study compares cancer rates in talcum powder users to the general population. Though effective for providing preliminary information related to a potential connection, it can be difficult to draw absolute conclusions because the data is affected by so many factors. For instance, members in the talcum powder group could have other risk factors for ovarian cancer and their exposure to powder may or may not play a role.

Despite the variance in results, several studies concerning the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer do exist. Additionally, data from other studies has been analyzed in an effort to determine a link.

Most medical professionals agree the risk of developing ovarian cancer because of talcum powder use is low. One analysis of 16 different studies conducted prior to 2003 found a 30% increase in risk. The average risk for ovarian cancer is about 1.4%, so a 30% increase puts the risk at about 1.8%. Still, even a small increase in risk is unsettling and should be examined further for confirmation.

A study published in the August 15 issue of the Journal of Cancer found women who used talcum powder directly on their genitals or on sanitary napkins were three times more likely to develop cancer. This study involved 215 women receiving treatment for ovarian cancer in Boston hospitals between 1978 and 1981. The study’s principal author, Dr. Daniel W. Cramer, believes further research is needed before he would recommend doctors tell women to stop using talc.

Information and data collected from the study is as follows:

A study of more than a thousand women found that 45% of women with ovarian cancer reported using talc in their genital area, compared to 36% of women without the disease, leading to an overall increased relative risk of about 60%. Women who did not themselves use the powder, but whose husbands regularly used talc on their genitals also had a 50% increased risk of ovarian cancer. The only women in this study who failed to show such an association were those who had previously had a tubal ligation, implying that closing off the pathway from the external genitals to the ovaries may be protective. In addition, use of talc prior to pregnancy was associated with a much higher risk than talc usage after pregnancy, implying that changes may occur in the ovary during pregnancy that may decrease susceptibility. The authors of this study predicted that approximately 10% of ovarian cancer cases in the general population may be attributable to talc usage.

One of the main manufacturers in the United States, Johnson & Johnson, issued a statement calling the study inconclusive based on the fact it asked women only about their current use of powder, as opposed to their use over the years leading up to their diagnosis. The company claimed it would pursue further studies, despite his belief that current information refutes the connection between his company’s product and ovarian cancer. Johnson & Johnson recently lost a lawsuit to a woman who developed ovarian cancer after long-term use of talcum powder manufactured by the company and could face additional lawsuits in the future.

Talc Identified as a Carcinogen to Humans

In addition to the information gleaned from various studies, information is also available from several national and international agencies that have studied the affects of talc and how it relates to the development of cancer. These agencies issue standards on whether a substance is considered carcinogenic and these standards are used by the American Cancer Society and other organizations to evaluate the risk of certain products.

Talc has been evaluated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization. The IARC classified talc containing asbestos as a carcinogen, but did not think there was enough data to determine whether or not asbestos-free talc should be classified in the same manner. Ultimately, the IARC classified talcum powder used in the genital area as a possible carcinogen for humans.

In addition to the study published in the Journal of Cancer, a study conducted in 2000 showed an increase in cancer risk for talc users. The Nurses’ Health Study was a prospective study of 121,700 female registered nurses in the United States who were aged 30-55 years at enrollment in 1976. There were three hundred seven epithelial ovarian cancers subsequently diagnosed in this cohort through June 1, 1996, were confirmed by medical record review, and met inclusion criteria.

Further details of the study are as follows:

Previously, in 1982, all the women had answered questions about talc use in the genital area. The question asked if they had “ever” used talc, so it was impossible to determine whether use occurred currently or prior to the cancer diagnosis and for how long. The study concluded no overall association between use of talc and ovarian cancer, even when the researchers attempted to take into consideration numerous factors that could affect the association. However, there was approximately a 40% greater report of ever using talc among those women who later developed serous invasive ovarian cancers. The serous cell type accounts for more than half of all invasive ovarian cancers, has been linked to asbestos, and was previously associated with talc in another study.

The Most Recent Study (2013)

More recent information has further muddled the water as to just how cancer and talcum powder are linked. Experts agree use of talc in the genital area is dangerous, but there is debate over just how much and for how long that use must occur before there is a significant increase in risk.

The most reason study conducted in 2013 determined the following:

When individual data from eight population-based case-control studies studies was collected and harmonized, it was determined that genital powder use was associated with a modest increased risk of epithelial ovarian cancer (odds ratio 1.24, 95% confidence interval 1.15-1.33) relative to women who never used powder. Risk was elevated for invasive serous (1.20, 1.09-1.32), endometrioid (1.22, 1.04-1.43), and clear cell (1.24, 1.01-1.52) tumors, and for borderline serous tumors (1.46, 1.24-1.72).

Among genital powder users, we observed no significant trend (p=0.17) in risk with increasing number of lifetime applications (assessed in quartiles). No increase in risk among women who only reported non-genital powder use was noted. In summary, genital powder use is a modifiable exposure associated with small-to-moderate increases in risk of most histologic subtypes of epithelial ovarian cancer.


If you or a loved one has been a long-time user of Johnson & Johnson powder or any other talcum powder product and received an ovarian cancer diagnosis, compensation might be available. We can help you gather the information you need to determine if you are eligible for compensation. Contact us today for more information on filing a talcum powder lawsuit.

View Sources
  1. http://cancerpreventionresearch.aacrjournals.org/content/early/2013/06/12/1940-6207.CAPR-13-0037.abstract
  2. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/talcum-powder-and-cancer
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/08/12/business/talcum-company-calls-study-on-cancer-link-inconclusive.html
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621109/
  5. http://www.thecre.com/ntp/CREfinalcomments3[1].html
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10655442