What is Talcum Powder?

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Talcum powder has been used for decades in personal care products due to its absorbent properties.  It was considered safe enough to be used on infants and in sensitive areas of the body but it may have contributed to the development of ovarian cancer in thousands of women.

Talc is one of the softest known minerals and in its powder form, is most commonly used for personal care, bath and beauty products.  Talcum powder is made from talc, a form of magnesium silicate (magnesium, silicon, and oxygen) which is mined from ground deposits.  Talc is also a common ingredient a number of cosmetic items.  In addition to its use in consumer and baby health products, talc is used in manufacturing in a variety of industries, including paint, paper, rubber, ceramics, electric cable, chalk, food, and pharmaceuticals.

Talcum powder has been popular as a bath and body item and for infant care because of its ability to absorb moisture.  In its natural form, it is gray, green or white and has a greasy texture.  Most commercial talcum powders are white in color and have a soothing, silky feel with a 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 have used talcum powder products, like Shower-to-Shower, under their arms, on their thighs, and in the genital area, especially during warmer weather. Traditionally, talcum powder was the primary ingredient in Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder which was used on infants and children to prevent diaper rash.

Most manufacturers, including Johnson & Johnson, have replaced the talc in their powder products with alternatives including corn starch or arrowroot powder, mainly due to concerns of respiratory problems.  Over the past decades however, evidence has emerged, that talc may contribute to the development of ovarian cancer in women who have used it in the perineal (groin) or genital area.

Talcum Powder Ovarian Cancer Risk

Concern about talcum powder and its contribution to the development of ovarian cancer may have emerged in the 1970s due to a potential for asbestos contamination of talc.  Asbestos is mined in similar locations, often very close to talc deposits.  After the link between asbestos and cancer became clear, asbestos was banned from body care products and today, all personal care products are asbestos-free.

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.

Talcum Powder Ovarian Cancer Studies

The first study examining the link between talc and ovarian cancer dates back to 1971 when researchers determined 75% of the ovarian tumors they examined contained talc.  They concluded that talcum powder is applied to the genitals, it could migrate through the vaginal tract to the ovaries. A decade later, in 1982, a Harvard University research study showed that talcum powder use correlated to at 30% increase in the chance for ovarian cancer.  To date, over 40 studies have been performed examining the link between ovarian cancer and the use of talcum powder, with mixed results.

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 groups of people who have known exposure to talcum powder vs. those who are known not to have been exposed to talcum powder. Some medical professionals have objected to conclusions drawn in this type of study by citing problems with absolute recall, implying that people are incapable of remembering how often they did or did not use powder.
  • The second type of study compares the cancer rates in talcum powder users to the overall cancer rate in the general population. This type of study may be useful in providing preliminary information but it can be difficult to draw definite conclusions as the data may be affected by many factors including other risks to cancer and the possibility that talcum powder may or may not play a role.

Despite the variance in results and collection methods, 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.  Overall, 26 out of 40 studies show a small but definitive link between talcum powder use in the genital or perineal area and ovarian cancer.  In addition, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization, has classified talcum powder used in the genital area as a possible carcinogen for humans.

An article published in 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.  This information comes from a Johnson & Johnson internal memo written in 1997 that identified the potential risk but stated that the company believed the link was too small to be of concern.  During this period, the company continued to market their talcum powder products without warning the public and even expanded their marketing platforms which targeted African-Americans and Hispanics.

Most manufacturers, including Johnson & Johnson, have replaced the talcum powder in their products with other absorbent powders like cornstarch or arrowroot powder.

Talcum Powder Ovarian Cancer Lawsuits

Johnson & Johnson and other talcum powder manufacturers are facing over 9,000 lawsuits filed by women or families of those who developed ovarian cancer after using talcum powder in the genital area.  Lawsuits have been consolidated in federal and state courts in Missouri, New Jersey, South Dakota and California.  A number of these lawsuits have been decided in favor of the plaintiffs, women or family members of those who were diagnosed with ovarian cancer or who died from ovarian cancer.  Total awards have already reached nearly $5 billion and thousands have yet to be settled.  Johnson & Johnson may also expect that more lawsuits will be filed.

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. Though each case is unique and must be evaluated separately, you may be eligible for compensation for this costly and potentially deadly disease and should seek legal advice.

View Sources

  1. Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay $55 mln in talc-powder trial, Reuters (5/2016) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-johnson-johnson-talc-verdict-idUSKCN0XT20L
  2. J&J must pay $72 million for cancer death linked to talcum powder: lawyers, Reuters (2/2016) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-johnson-johnson-verdict-idUSKCN0VW20A
  3. J&J Has a Baby Powder Problem, Bloomberg (3/2016) https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-baby-powder-cancer-lawsuits/
  4. Johnson’s Baby Powder (1992 internal memo), Bloomberg (3/2016) https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-baby-powder-cancer-lawsuits/img/baby_powder_major_opportunities_and_major_obstacles.pdf
  5. The Association Between Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer, Epidemiology (3/2016) http://journals.lww.com/epidem/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2016&issue=05000&article=00006&type=abstract
  6. J&J Loses Third Trial Over Cancer Link to Talcum Powder, Bloomberg (10/2016) https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjeqYz5qMzcAhWJjlkKHUeIC9IQFjAAegQIABAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bloomberg.com%2Fnews%2Farticles%2F2016-10-28%2Fj-j-loses-jury-verdict-in-third-talc-cancer-link-trial&usg=AOvVaw3wMcTVyKO7VGbyFOZ-wiXP
  7. Perineal use of talc and risk of ovarian cancer, Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (6/2008) http://jech.bmj.com/content/62/4/358.full
  8. Record $417M award in lawsuit linking baby powder to cancer, Associated Press (8/2017) https://apnews.com/3b0cb95186a84b9787bd382cc947c626
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