Talcum Powder and Cancer: What You Need to Know

The Link Between Talcum Powder and Asbestos

What Is Talcum Powder?

Talc is a mineral; talcum powder is simply the mineral in a powder form. Listed on ingredient labels as talc, talcum, or magnesium silicate, it comes from talc deposits, which are mined underground. When crushed into a powder, talc has a silky, soft consistency, making it perfect for use in cosmetics, food products, vitamins, and some prescription pills. Small amounts of talc can even be found in children’s toys, like crayons.  

Why Do People Use Talcum Powder?

Talcum powder helps absorb moisture and oil on the skin. Cosmetics companies use it in different types of makeup, including foundation, lipstick, eyeshadow, mascara, and blush. Talc is also the main ingredient in many baby powders, including Johnson’s Baby Powder, which consumers have used for decades to keep skin dry and prevent conditions such as diaper rash in babies.

Is There Asbestos in Talcum Powder? 

Talc is mined underground, and according to geologists, streaks of asbestos — a carcinogenic mineral — are found near talc deposits. This could result in cross-contamination. Asbestos isn’t safe in any amount, and the possibility that talcum powder could contain these toxic fibers has raised some concerns. If inhaled, asbestos fibers can lead to cancers like mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs, stomach, and heart.

That’s not all. To date, around 11,700 women have sued Johnson & Johnson, claiming the company’s talcum powder caused them to develop ovarian cancer. A jury in California heard opening statements on January 7. This trial is the first of more than a dozen cases scheduled for 2019. 

But could trace amounts of asbestos in talcum powder actually lead to cancer? It depends on who you ask.

In a 2018 study that analyzed roughly 50 ovarian cancer cases involving perineal talc use, researchers determined there was a “consistent association” between the two. Other studies have failed to establish this same link. Experts agree that more research is needed to provide conclusive evidence.

Johnson & Johnson has said its baby powder and other talc products do not contain any asbestos and that it will appeal any verdict that finds otherwise. So far, the company has won appeals in two different cases. 

But Dr. Raja Flores, Chief Thoracic Surgeon at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, isn’t ruling out the possibility of that link.

“Peritoneal mesothelioma behaves very similarly to ovarian cancer,” said Flores. “So maybe there’s an issue with using talcum powder in the peritoneal area? We don’t know.”

Can Using Talcum Power Cause Mesothelioma or Other Cancers?

Even though there’s currently no proven link between talc and pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma, it might be time to shelve the bottle for good. In the early 1980s, the American Academy of Pediatrics took a strong stance against using talcum powder on infants after concerns that the powder causes respiratory problems in babies.

As for adults? According to Flores, it’s just not necessary.  

“There’s no reason to use talcum powder,” Flores said. “It doesn’t make you more sanitary, and it could lead to cancer. I’d avoid it.”  


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