Does talcum powder cause cancer and what is it made of?


Johnson and Johnson has announced it is discontinuing sales in the US of its talcum-based baby powder amid falling sales, following several litigations over claims that it cases certain types of cancer.

Sales have dropped nearly 60% in the past three years after nearly 20,000 people filed lawsuits claiming that the product had caused them to develop tumours.

Kathleen Widner, chairman of the company’s consumer unit in North America said the decision to discontinue the product was a ‘commercial’ one, with the company reassessing its products in the wake of coronavirus.

The company said in a statement to CNBC that it ‘remains steadfastly confident in the safety of talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder.’

Does talcum powder cause cancer?
There’s no hard and fast evidence to suggest talcum powder causes cancer, but the American Cancer Society has said there have been studies of cases which suggest that there is some form of link.

It was previously suggested that talc could cause ovarian cancer if particles travel through the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes to the ovaries – but the findings are few and far between.

‘Many studies in women have looked at the possible link between talcum powder and cancer of the ovary. Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase,’ the American Cancer Society said in 2017.

‘Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk. But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person’s memory of talc use many years earlier. Two prospective cohort studies, which would not have the same type of potential bias, have not found an increased risk.’

They added that any increased risk of ovarian cancer from using talc would be likely to be small.

The comments came after an American woman, Eva Echeverria, won a lawsuit against Johnson and Johnson in 2017, claiming that she developed ovarian cancer after years of using the talc on a regular basis.

Cancer Research has also commented on the alleged link. saying any risk of ovarian cancer from using talcum powder is likely to be small.

‘Cosmetic body and talcum powders often contain a mineral compound called talc,’ Cancer Research explains on its website.

‘Several studies have looked at talcum powder use and ovarian cancer. While on the whole studies have seen a modest increase in the risk of ovarian cancer in women who use talc on their genitals, the evidence isn’t completely clear.

‘Scientists are trying to see if there is a real link, but for now we can’t be sure whether or not talc itself could cause ovarian cancer. However, even if there is a risk it is likely to be fairly small.

What is talcum powder made of?
Talcum powder is made from talc, a mineral which consists mainly of magnesium, silicon and oxygen.

The powder absorbs moisture and helps cut friction. It is widely used in the products you might recognise on the shelf of a chemist or shop which sells toiletries and other personal care items.

In its natural form some talc contains asbestos, which is known to cause cancers in and around the lungs when inhaled.

However no household talc products contain asbestos – and all talcum powder products in the US have been free from it since the 1970s.