Competing opinions regarding the safety of talcum powder have developed throughout the past several decades. Talc is commonly used as baby powder and is also widely used in cosmetic and hygiene products. However, talc is targeted as a cancer-causing agent due to its close association to asbestos—the two can occur together in nature. United States-based producers of cosmetic talc products banned asbestos in 1976.
Most recently, talc has been blamed as a cause of ovarian cancer due to its use in many feminine hygiene products. Observational studies have previously connected talc-powder use and ovarian cancer. However, it’s possible that recent news stories and lawsuits created a recall bias, and there has not been a definitive investigation to date.
To further examine the association between talc and ovarian cancer, researchers from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute conducted a study. The results of this study, the largest of its kind, were reported earlier this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to the study, which used self-reported data from more than 250,000 women, there is no statistically significant association between the use of talc in the genital area and ovarian cancer. The data came from four large, United States-based cohorts, including the Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, Sister Study, and Women’s Health Initiative Observation Study.
The study participants were asked if they used products containing talcum, baby powder, or deodorizing powder, including sanitary napkins, tampons, underwear, diaphragms, or applying it directly to the vaginal area. The results showed that 38% of the women reported the use of talcum powder in the genital area. Of these, 10% reported long-term use and 22% reported frequent use.
Of the women sampled, 2,168 developed ovarian cancer and the risk was shown to be similar between those who reported using talc products and those who did not. According to an article from NPR regarding the study, this represents an 8% increased risk of developing ovarian cancer compared to those who never used talc powder products. Lead author and senior NIH scientist Katie O’Brien told NPR, “that is not a statistically significant increase.” O’Brien also told NPR reporters that it’s essential to look at this number in context compared to the overall risk of developing ovarian cancer, which is very rare—1.3%. An increase of 8% is very small, and as O’Brien told NPR reporters, this represents about a 0.09% increased risk by age 70.
While studies of this kind cannot determine exact cause and effect, the researchers added that talc powder and associated products could produce an inflammatory response by ovarian tissue or the fallopian tubes. This could result in increased oxidative stress levels, DNA damage, and cell division, which may contribute to carcinogenesis. O’Brien concluded that a more in-depth study is not likely to occur due to the logistics of assigning women to use talcum powder over many years.