Can talcum powder cause ovarian cancer?

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For 100 years, Americans have been using talcum powder on their skin.  Mothers have been applying it to their babies’ bottoms for decades.  But some researchers say the powder may put some women at risk of ovarian cancer, which kills about 14,500 American women every year.

Can talcum powder really cause ovarian cancer?   That question, debated for decades, is back in the news.

This comes as the family of an Alabama woman who died of ovarian cancer wins a $72 million  judgment against the healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson.  

Jaqueline Fox's family says she used the company's Baby Powder and Shower to Shower powder for 35 years before her death.  She died from ovarian cancer at 62 in 2015.

Now, a new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston finds women who regularly used talc to powder their genital area had a 33% higher risk of ovarian cancer.  Researchers questioned 2,041 women with ovarian cancer and 2,100 not affected by the cancer about their use of talcum powder.   They found those who said they routinely applied talc to their genital area were more likely to develop ovarian cancer.

Dr. Ira Horowitz, Professor and Chair of the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory School of Medicine and a member of the Winship Cancer Institute, says he’s been asked about the link between talc and ovarian cancer for decades.

"If you look at some ways to prevent ovarian cancer, would be to have a tubal ligation, or have your tubes removed,” he says.  “So one good question is, ‘Is it really preventing something from spreading from the outside into the abdominal cavity, where the ovaries reside?’"

But, why talc?    Dr. Horowitz says researchers don’t really know.  In its original form, talcum powder contains asbestos, a known carcinogen. 

But, here in the U.S. body powders haven’t contained asbestos for at least 40 years.

Dr. Horowitz says a study back in the 1970’s found a possible connection between talc and ovarian cancer.

“The scientists looked at ovarian cancer,” Horowitz says, “And they were able to, in the ovarian cancer, actually see particles that were consistent with talc."

Other studies found no link between the popular powders and ovarian cancer.

"We cannot definitively say that is the cause, or one of the causes of ovarian cancer,” says Horowitz.  “What we can say is that there is this association."

Until more is known, Dr. Horowitz says you may want to do what you can to lower any possible risk.

"I think one way to go about it, both for women and for babies, would be to try to avoid it and use products with cornstarch,” he says.

But, read the ingredient carefully, Horowitz says.   Often talcum powder and cornstarch products are placed side-by-side on store shelves.

Johnson &  Johnson says its powders have a long safety track record, and there is no firm evidence talc can raise a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer.