Talcum powder is made from naturally-occurring mineral called talc. Talc is mined and then ground into a fine powder to make talcum powder and to be used in a number of cosmetic products. As a finely-ground powder, talc has several desirable properties: It absorbs moisture well and it reduces friction. In addition to use as an ingredient in other products, many people use talcum powder by itself for these properties.
Over the last several decades a number of safety concerns have arisen over talcum powder; namely that it may contain asbestos and that it may cause cancer or increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Several studies have backed up this concern and have shown that use of talcum powder for feminine hygiene can in fact increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer. This finding has led to a number of lawsuits, especially against Johnson & Johnson, one of the biggest makers of talcum powder products.
What is Talcum Powder?
Talc is a natural mineral, considered a clay type of mineral for the small particles of which it consists. Talc is a magnesium silicate and contains the elements magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Found naturally in mines and in the ground it does not look like talcum powder. It is in crystal or fibrous form and has to be ground into a fine powder to make talcum powder and related products.
As it forms in the ground as a mineral, talc is often found with asbestos ore. Asbestos is a group of silicate minerals that has been used for thousands of years because of its strength, ability to absorb sound, and its resistance to fire, among other properties. Eventually, it was discovered that breathing in crystals of asbestos could cause cancer and other illnesses, especially mesothelioma.
Talc naturally contains some asbestos because the two minerals are so closely linked in the ground and because of how they form naturally. Quality control has been an important part of talcum powder production since 1976 and all products using food-grade and cosmetic grade talc are considered to be free of asbestos. Some people, however, believe that the possible presence of asbestos has led to cases of ovarian and other types of cancer.
Uses for Talcum Powder
Talcum powder has been a hugely popular ingredient in cosmetic products and as baby powder because it absorbs moisture and reduces friction. It can be used to control moisture, sweating, and odors, but also to soothe skin that is rubbing together and causing rashes, or on babies getting diaper rash from friction with the diaper.
Certain makeup products, like loose face powders and eye shadows, have talcum powder in them to make them silkier, smoother, and more absorbable. Other products that may contain talcum powder include any type of body powder, foot powder, deodorant powder, medicated powders, and sanitary pads and incontinence pads.
Women have long used talcum powder products in feminine hygiene for absorbing moisture and preventing odors. Unfortunately, this type of use has now been linked with an increased incidence of ovarian cancer. It was in the early 1970s that doctors first started to make a connection with women using talcum powder in the genital area and more cases of ovarian cancer.
In one of the earliest studies (from 1971) conducted into talcum powder and ovarian cancer, researchers took samples of ovarian tumors from women who had used talcum powder in the genital. They found talc particles embedded far inside the tumors, which indicated there may be a connection between the use of the powder and the development of the tumors.
Another study from 1982 looked at a group of over 200 women with ovarian cancer and over 200 without. The study found that those women who had ovarian cancer were more likely to have used talcum powder for feminine hygiene. The researchers also noted that the type of ovarian cancer that these women had was similar to mesothelioma, known already to be caused by asbestos. This helped establish a possible connection between asbestos in talcum powder and cancer.
Additional studies have either found a small or slight increase in risk for ovarian cancer in women using talcum powder for feminine hygiene, or found that a possible connection was inconclusive. The results have therefore been mixed and Johnson & Johnson has fought against accusations that their products may cause ovarian cancer. Currently the International Agency for Research on Cancer categorizes genital use of talcum powder as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
Other Health Concerns
In addition to the possible link to ovarian cancer in women, there are other health and safety issues with the use of talcum powder. Infants, for instance, are susceptible to respiratory problems caused by the fine powder. The American Academy of Pediatrics actually does not recommend the use of baby powder and other talc products on infants.
The tiny, airborne particles in talcum powder can also be irritating to kids and adults, not just babies. A condition called talcosis can result from prolonged exposure to the powder and is characterized by wheezing, coughing, and lung irritation. Over even longer periods of time, this can trigger pneumonia or asthma in some people.
Ovarian Cancer and Talcum Powder Lawsuits
Because of the potential connection to ovarian cancer, many women have filed lawsuits against manufacturers of talc products. Johnson & Johnson’s Consumer Companies makes talcum products, most notably Baby Powder. Plaintiffs have complained that the company failed to warn them about the risks of using talcum powder on the genital area and that it could significantly increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer.
The suits against Johnson & Johnson have included both individual and class action lawsuits. In one particular case, a woman blamed her ovarian cancer on more than 30 years of near daily-use of Johnson & Johnson’s Shower to Shower body powder. When her tumors were removed, doctors found talc particles in them and concluded that the powder likely caused her cancer. One doctor who had been researching talc and ovarian cancer for decades testified on her behalf and claimed that nearly 10,000 cases of cancer per year are related to talcum powder.
In this particular case the plaintiff won in that she was able to prove that Johnson & Johnson failed to warn her of the risk of using Shower to Shower. However, the court did not find evidence sufficient enough to find the company liable for her cancer. The plaintiff won no monetary damages in this case.
Although the number of cases continues to rise and the connection between talcum powder and ovarian cancer becomes more compelling with evidence, Johnson & Johnson continues to deny any wrongdoing and has not added a warning message to its products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not test or approve cosmetic products, but does follow up on potential safety issues. The agency has investigated talcum powder products, but has not yet taken any actions.
It is likely that more studies will look at the potential of talcum powder, and possibly contaminating asbestos in these products, to cause ovarian cancer. The evidence may only grow stronger showing that there is a connection. In the event that it does, more lawsuits are expected to be filed against companies like Johnson & Johnson who have consistently failed to take steps to warn the public of the risks of using their products.