Baby powders are a type of cosmetic or hygienic powder made from:

  • a clay mineral called talc
  • cornstarch
  • arrowroot or other powders

These powders are often used to prevent or treat diaper rash around infants’ bottoms and genital areas. Women also commonly use these powders on their genitals to reduce feminine odors. Adult men and women may also use baby powder on other parts of their body to soothe rashes or ease friction on the skin.

The company that makes the namesake product “baby powder” is called Johnson & Johnson.

What’s the controversy?

According to media reports, more than 6,600 baby powder lawsuits have been filed against Johnson & Johnson. These lawsuits are filed mostly on behalf of women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They claim they got cancer from years of talc use on their genitals. Some men who have used baby powder have brought their own suits.

Many scientific studies published since the 1970s suggest that long-term use of talc-based baby powders on female genitals is associated with a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Another major concern has been asbestos contamination of talc-containing baby powder. In April 2018, a New Jersey Superior Court jury found Johnson & Johnson guilty in a trial accusing the baby powder giant of selling contaminated talc powder products. Johnson & Johnson, and another talc powder company, were ordered to pay $37 million in damages to the plaintiff, a man named Stephen Lanzo.

Lanzo said he developed mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer associated with asbestos, due to regular use of Johnson & Johnson baby powder since his birth in 1972. Johnson & Johnson said it’s confident the talc did not cause Lanzo’s cancer — and asserts its products are safe.

What does the research say?

Asbestos is a type of mineral. It occurs naturally near talc mineral reserves. Asbestos exposure happens most often through inhalation. It has been linked directly to cancer.

There has been some concern that asbestos might contaminate talc mined for human use. But Johnson & Johnson’s product test results show its products do not contain asbestos.

Baby powder and ovarian cancer

The risks of ovarian cancer caused by baby powder use are less clear. Scientists first began investigating a possible link between talc use and cancer when they found talc particles in women’s ovarian tumors.

In 1982, the public paid more attention to the possible connection between talc powder and cancer when scientists suggested they had found some evidence linking genital talc use and ovarian cancer.

The lead author of that study, Daniel Cramer, told Johnson & Johnson to put a warning label on its products. He also served as an expert witness in trials where women have sued the health and beauty company. Many studies since have looked at the relationship between use of the powder and ovarian cancer.

In one 2018 review of dozens of papers on this research, scientists found at best a weak association between genital use of talc and ovarian cancer.

The more baby powder that is used, the stronger its link with ovarian cancer. But, overall, genital talc powder use is only weakly associated with ovarian cancer. So genital use of talc cannot be considered a cause of ovarian cancer. And there are many risk factors possibly affecting a woman’s chance of getting ovarian cancer.

These risk factors include:

  • older age
  • inherited gene mutations (BRCA 1 and BRCA2)
  • family history
  • long-term use of hormone therapy

Issues with studies

Some scientists say studies that have found a connection between genital talc use and ovarian cancer are often poorly designed. These studies are usually small and require women to recall past behaviors. This can be inaccurate.

In a much larger study published in 2014, scientists followed more than 61,000 postmenopausal women (those at highest risk of ovarian cancer) who had not yet been diagnosed with cancer over an average of 12.4 years. The scientists tracked the women’s use of talc powder and whether or not they developed ovarian cancer. This study found no link between genital talc use and ovarian cancer.

Is baby powder safe?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified talc-based powder use on the genitals and buttocks as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” But it also classified talc that contains asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have said that repeated inhalation of talc might harm the lungs. The European Union has banned talc in health and beauty products due to health and safety concerns.

Johnson & Johnson and other companies making health and beauty products are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test their products for toxins. Johnson & Johnson say its product testing has shown that its talc powder products do not contain asbestos.

How can baby powder be used safely?

Scientists do not have enough evidence to know if use of baby powder causes cancer. Research has shown mixed results.

Inhaling baby powder (talc or cornstarch) can cause respiratory problems if it enters the lungs, especially in babies. There are no medically necessary uses of baby powder. If you’re worried about your exposure or your child’s exposure to talc powder, here are some things you can do to use it more safely:

  • Avoid putting baby powder directly on the genitals. Instead, gently pat a light layer on the skin around the genitals and on the legs
  • Avoid getting baby powder in your baby’s eyes
  • Keep baby powder away from your face and your child’s face. This can help to avoid possible inhalation.
  • Keep baby powder out of reach of your children.
  • Shake out baby powder directly into your hand away from your face.
  • Do not shake baby powder onto your baby directly. Shake powder onto a cloth and then use the cloth to gently pat the powder onto your baby’s skin

Alternatives to talc-based baby powder include:

  • cornstarch powders
  • arrowroot starch or tapioca starch powders
  • oat flour
  • baking soda
  • zinc-based diaper rash creams, instead of powders, for babies