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Does Talcum Baby Powder Cause Cancer?

Baby in diapers

For years, it was the gold standard of parenting. You changed a baby’s dirty diaper, or pulled them out of the tub, and just automatically doused their little bum in a bit of talcum powder to prevent diaper rash. The soft, white powder was known to keep the diaper area dry and itch-free, and it was a staple in most homes with a newborn.

Today, however, fears are running rampant regarding the use of talcum powder. In a recent Johnson & Johnson case, the company was ordered to pay out $72 million in damages to the family of a woman who allegedly died of ovarian cancer as a result of the J&J brand talcum powder.

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This was not, and is not, the only lawsuit of its kind. In fact, Johnson & Johnson is facing a public relations nightmare now. Over 1,000 women are suing the company for covering up a potential cancer risk.

Of course, new parents are nervous. And the legal industry is taking full advantage of that fear. Run a simple Google search and you’ll quickly find a list of attorneys heading talcum powder lawsuits.

But what’s the truth behind the suits? And could talcum powder cause cancer for you or your baby?

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The science

Questions about the safety of talcum powder first came about in the 1960s, when it was found that asbestos (which was in talcum powder back then) could cause lung cancer. In the 1970s, additional research looked at the chemical composition of talcum powder. Around this time, most talcum powders were asbestos-free. But concerns still remained.

Subsequent studies researching a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer have produced mixed results. A 1987 report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer found inadequate evidence regarding this link.

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But a more recent report based on case-control studies found a “modest, but unusually consistent, excess in risk.” And a 2013 study found a “small to moderate” increase in ovarian cancer risk when talcum powder was used in the genital area, prompting the conclusion that the avoidance of these powders could be a potential “strategy to reduce ovarian cancer incidence.” However, the study was retrospective and relied on participants to recall talcum powder use. Prospective studies haven’t shown an increased cancer risk.

The caveats

One of the big issues with the Johnson & Johnson cases is not so much the talcum powder-cancer link itself. Most scientists now agree that the link is significant, but small. The larger question is whether or not Johnson & Johnson executives willfully hid this potential link from consumers.

The cases have hinged on a 1997 internal memo where a company consultant reported that “anybody who denies” the risks of talcum powder and ovarian cancer is “denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”

The basis of these cases is that Johnson & Johnson may have hidden the risk for decades. The actual increased risk of cancer with talcum powder use has been found to be statistically very small. The vast majority of babies using talcum powder will not develop cancer.

The final call

According to the American Cancer Society, it’s generally accepted that talcum powder containing asbestos has the ability to cause cancer if inhaled. But with nearly all talcum powders being asbestos-free these days, the level of risk is less obvious, with ovarian cancer being the greatest concern.

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Modern day talcum powders have not been strongly linked to any other type of cancer.

As the mother of a little girl, I can only tell you that talcum powder doesn’t offer any additional benefits strong enough to discount even the slightest potential risk increase. We’re not talking about a lifesaving medicine here, or a product that produces benefits nothing else can replicate. There are plenty of natural ways to treat diaper rash, so I choose not to use talcum powder.

But these are obviously decisions that should be made on an individual family basis. The most important thing is ensuring parents have access to the information that is currently available, and allowing them to educate themselves before making a final determination.

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The official word from the American Cancer Society is this: “Until more information is available, people concerned about using talcum powder may want to avoid or limit their use of consumer products that contain it. For example, they may want to consider using cornstarch-based cosmetic products instead. There is no evidence at this time linking cornstarch products with any form of cancer.”

So if you have concerns, stock up on cornstarch instead. And remember, our knowledge on these issues is constantly evolving. If you used talcum powder on your baby’s diaper region in the past, there’s no reason to stress now. We are all simply doing the best we can with the information we have available to us at the time.

Leah Campbell
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