Baby powder and its link to ovarian cancer has been in the headlines far too often over the last couple of years — and that barrage of news has raised more questions than answers.
On July 12, a jury in St. Louis awarded $4.69 billion to 22 women who sued Johnson & Johnson claiming they developed ovarian cancer from years of using the company's talcum powder products. $550 million of the verdict is for compensatory damages, and the remaining $4.14 billion is for punitive damages. This verdict is the largest against the company regarding its baby powder and Shower to Shower powder products.
In August 2017, a jury in California ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $417 million to a woman who says she developed terminal ovarian cancer. However, a superior court judge overturned the verdict in October and ordered a new trial. In February 2016, a Missouri court ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $72 million in damages to the family of Jackie Fox, a woman who died of ovarian cancer. This verdict was also overturned in Missouri Appeals Court in October 2017.
All of these lawsuits said the cancer was linked to their long-time habit of applying baby powder.
But Johnson & Johnson insists a correlation between talc powder and ovarian cancer has not been proven. Prosecutors say Johnson & Johnson knew about the risk since the early 1980s and didn't protect its customers. (A newly released investigation from Reuters goes further, saying internal documents show the company knew the powder was, at times, tainted with asbestos, which is carcinogenic.)
The first study conducted on talc powder use on female genitalia found a 92 percent increased risk for ovarian cancer with women who reported using the talc for this purpose. But still, other doctors disagree. "Several decades of medical research do not support the hypothesis that use of talcum powder causes ovarian cancer," said Dr. Hal Lawrence, chief executive officer of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Consider these safe alternatives
If all this back-and-forth has you questioning your baby powder usage, there's an easier answer. There are some safe options to use instead of talc powder:
Cornstarch. Found in the baking aisle of your local grocery store, cornstarch is a great natural alternative to talc. The consistency is exactly the same, so it’ll help soak up wetness just as well. Cornstarch is derived from the endosperm of a corn kernel and is often used to help thicken sauces.
Arrowroot starch or tapioca starch. Both staples in a paleo baker’s kitchen, these starches are all-natural alternatives to talc. Arrowroot is derived from several tropical South American plants. Tapioca starch is derived from the crushed-up pulp of the South American cassava plant, a woody shrub. Both are used in paleo recipes as alternatives to flour and cornstarch. If you’re using it to on your baby’s sore bottom, try this recipe with some extra ingredients to help soothe.
Baking soda. You thought sodium bicarbonate, otherwise known as baking soda, only had 100 uses. Well, here's one more: This common pantry item can be used in place of baby powder. Some people even use it as deodorant, applying some to their underarms each morning. It can also deodorize the air. As a matter of fact, I keep one container in my pantry, one under my sink, one in my laundry room and one in the bathroom.
Oat flour. Try this if you’re looking for a slightly coarser powder than the ones mentioned above.
Commercial baby powder alternatives. These products combine the items listed above with essential oils, so the powder smells pretty nice. Just to name a few:
- Burt’s Bee’s Baby Dusting Powder
- Honeybee Gardens Deodorant Powder
- The Honest Company Organic Baby Powder
- Nature’s Baby Dusting Powder
Here's one last reason to consider the all-natural route: Talc is poisonous when inhaled or swallowed. It can cause breathing problems, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics urges caution when it comes to using talc powder on babies.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in November 2016.