For 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.