Can Baby Powder Cause Cancer?

Baby PowderFor generations, Johnson& Johnson baby powder has been a symbol of    healthy baby care. But this week a second jury decided that Johnson and Johnson  failed to warn a woman of the increased risks of ovarian cancer from their baby powder– and awarded  her $52 million in damages. .   But  does  baby powder pose a real  health hazard?   Its not a simple yes and no answer.


Baby Powder 101

Most brands of baby powder  are made from talc. This natural mineral contains magnesium, oxygen, silicates, and asbestos. We use the powder between our  thighs to reduce chafing and on sanitary napkins, and diaphragms.  Doctors believe that microscopic particles of talc  are able to travel up the reproductive tract and become embedded in the ovries. Originally  the problem was thought due to the presence of asbestos filbers found naturally in talc. In the  1960’s doctors became aware of a link between asbestos and cancers. They realized that asbestos  fibers  used in building products were inhaled or swallowed creating constant inflammation in the  lungs.   This type of irritation was found to trigger the growth of cancerous cells.  In fact   biopsies actually found asbestos fibers in  tumours.   By the 1970’s ,  a combination of  new federal regulations and voluntary recalls removed asbestos from  many ( including  talc)  but not all  consumer products.

It was hoped that removing asbestos from baby powder would be the end of the problem, but  some  studies continued to show  an increased  risk of ovarian cancer from baby powder.  For example, researchers from University of Massachusetts found  a three fold increase in endometrial cancer in women who  consistently used  asbestos-free  powder on their diaphragm. A similar study   from Harvard looked at 17,000 women and reported a small to moerate increased risk of ovarian cancer in those that  admitted to long term use of asbestos  free body powder. Talc is banned in Europe and The World Health Orgaization ( WHO) believes that talc is “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.  Not good news either either women or Johnson and Johnson.

What’s Wrong with Baby Powder

Some experts now suggest that  its the silicates in the talc that are causing the continuing health  problems.  It is well known that silicates  in mining and construction can cause silicosis.  This potentially  deadly pulmonary  problem results in  shortness of breath, cough and   eventually respiratory failure.  But its  important to know  that there are also  many studies that show no link between asbestos free  baby  powder and  ovarian cancer.  This is not really surprising since the research data was derived from  patient recalls about their baby powder habits over the past 20-30 years.  Since its hard to remember  what I did yesterday, its not  hard to imagine that recalls are not that accurate.

Baby Powder in the Courts

There are now 1200 lawsuits against J&J  claiming damages from their baby powder.  The first two lawsuits ended in judgement against J&J  for a total of $124 million.  As with so  many product liability lawsuits, the issue comes down to what  the company knew,  when did they know it and what did they do about it. The juries  did  not find that baby powder caused ovarian cancer, but that J&J failed to warn consumers of an increased risk of ovarian cancer from  talc based  baby powders.  In a third  case, a woman in South Dakota  sued J&J  for failing to put a warning label on their body powder package alerting consumers  to a possible link  between ovarian cancer and  talcum powder.  J&J  was found  negligent, but the woman did not recieve a cash  settlement.

Should You Still Use Baby Powder?

In hot weather or during menopause anytime, we use  body powder between the thighs to reduce chafing.  While there are conflicting studies on the risk factors,  I recommend using alternatives to talc based  body powders eg cornstarch based powders which are  a healthy option..  You can find products  like Caldesene Baby( $4 for 5 oz   and even J&J offers a cornstarch based product, called Soothing  with aloe and vitamin e baby  powder( $2 for 4 oz.  I like to use plain Argo cornstarch that you can find  in the baking section of any  supermarket.  Its  less that $4 for 16 ounces, fragrance free and is free of  inflammatory fibers. Its the same cornstarch that you use to thicken sauces and make shortbread cookies.  It works beautifully as a body powder  and I  take comfort in the fact that the FDA has stronger  ovesight over  food items like cornstarch   than  personal care  products like baby powder.




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