Talcum powder has made headlines in recent years as medical research and high-profile court cases have questioned whether using powder in the genital area can cause ovarian cancer.
A new study — one of the largest on the topic so far — reports that there is no statistically significant association between the use of talc or other powders in the genital area and ovarian cancer. The study, published in the medical journal JAMA, used data from 252,745 women who answered questions about whether they used any type of powder in their genital area.
Of those women, 38% said they used powder in the genital area with 22% reporting they used it at least weekly and 10% using it for at least 20 years.
Following up after about 11 years, researchers found that 2,168 women developed ovarian cancer. They found that women who used talc around their genitals had an 8% increased risk of ovarian cancer compared to those who never used it.
Because the lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is 1.3%, the increase is considered "not a statistically significant association," according to researchers.
Lead author Katie O'Brien told NPR that it represents an estimated 0.09% increase in risk by age 70. For a subset of women in the study who had their uterus and fallopian tubes intact, their lifetime increased risk of ovarian cancer from using talc powder in their genital area was 13%. That's an estimated 0.15% increase in risk by age 70 which, O'Brien says, is still considered a very small increase.
The study had some limitations. Because it was self-reported, researchers weren't able to document how frequently powder was used or how much was applied. The research didn't document the specific types of powder that were used. The study included mostly white women, so it's not immediately evident if the findings would translate to other demographics.
"One thing this research clearly demonstrates is how difficult it is to tie down whether something like this is indeed a risk factor for cancer. Despite this being a good, competent, careful study involving over quarter of a million women, it still leaves room for doubt about the association, if there is one, between using powder in the genital area and ovarian cancer," Kevin McConway, an emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, said in a statement from the Science Media Centre in the U.K.
"There is still uncertainty about whether any such association exists. If it does exist, there is uncertainty about whether the powder itself is what causes any increase in cancer risk. And there’s also uncertainty about what the size of the risk increase is, if there is one. But what the research does establish, I’d say, is that if using talc or other powder on that part of a woman’s body does really increase the risk of ovarian cancer, the increase in risk is likely to be small. I’m not a woman, so can’t have concerns about my own health in these respects – but if I were a woman, this wouldn’t be high on my list of worries."
History of talc powder concern
Health concerns over talc powder first surfaced in the 1970s, points out CNN, when a group of scientists wrote about finding talc particles embedded in ovarian and cervical tumor tissue.
Over the years, "findings have been mixed" with some studies reporting no increased risk of ovarian cancer and others reporting a slight risk, says the American Cancer Society.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classifies the genital use of talc powder as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
The health questions have triggered action in courtrooms.
While some cases against talcum powder maker Johnson & Johnson have focused on the connection between baby powder products used for feminine hygiene and ovarian cancer, other cases have dealt with the presence of asbestos in the powder.
A well-publicized Reuters investigation took a deep dive on asbestos in consumer products, especially talc. The report revealed that J&J knew about the connection and kept that information from regulators and the public. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is a known carcinogen. Reuters reporter Lisa Girion talks about her report in the video above.
Johnson & Johnson insists the correlation between talcum powder and ovarian cancer has not been proven. The company echoed the same sentiment about asbestos and mesothelioma.
Recently, an appeals court in Missouri overturned a $110 million verdict in October 2019, saying the Missouri court lacked the authority to make such an award to the plaintiff, who said her baby powder use led to ovarian cancer. It's just one of roughly 15,000 cases against the company. The largest up to this point is a July 2018 case that produced a record $4.69 billion talc verdict against J&J from 21 plaintiffs. The company is appealing.