Talcum powder seems like a wholesome product. After all, it helps to prevent babies from developing diaper rash. How harmful could it be, right? Well, up to 40% of women regularly use talcum powder on occasion, and that doesn’t account for the talc that exists in cosmetic products such as blush.
The purpose of the powder is to help absorb moisture and reduce friction. This can keep the skin dry in more moist areas, which can help prevent rashes. The unfortunate reality is that many published health studies demonstrate a link between talcum powder use and ovarian, uterine, and lung cancers and mesothelioma. Johnson & Johnson alone shelled out over $700 million for cancer-related lawsuits in 2016 and 2017. There are currently tens of thousands of dollars in pending lawsuits.
What Is Talc?
Talc is a soft mineral that exists in rocks buried in the ground. After a process of grinding and milling, the resulting ground talc gets incorporated into a wide variety of products. Technically, talc is hydrous magnesium silicate, which is made from silicon, magnesium, oxygen, and hydrogen.
In its natural state, talc may contain asbestos, a mineral that causes cancer, especially when inhaled. In 1976, the trade association that represented manufacturers asked them to remove asbestos from talc that was in their personal-care and cosmetic products. Unfortunately, this is not formally enforced and that’s why talc’s potential link to cancer still exists. People who use products that contain talc, or those who work mining talc, are the most at risk for cancer development.
Asbestos In Talcum Powder
Manufacturers aim to prevent cross-contamination of talc and asbestos by choosing mining sites carefully and testing samples. Talc and asbestos are two different minerals, but they exist in close proximity to each other. That makes it easy for cross-contamination to occur, especially since one gram of talc can contain millions of asbestos fibers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deemed asbestos to be a cancer-causing agent. Exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and laryngeal cancer.
According to a 2015 study, there was an increase in lung cancer mortality rates in talc miners. Talc exposure may not have been the only cause, though. It’s possible that these miners also inhaled other carcinogens, which weren’t measured in the study. A different study monitored the risk of lung cancer among workers who were exposed to asbestos-free talc and silica. The exposure took place during the manufacturing of ceramic plumbing fixtures. The research stated that workers exposed to high levels of silica did not have a significant lung cancer risk. The workers exposed to talc and silica experienced a 2.5-fold increased risk of lung cancer.
This type of cancer affects the lining of certain areas in the body, especially mesothelial cells that line the chest. Mesothelioma is not very common, with only about 3,000 diagnoses per year. For comparison, there are over 200,000 new diagnoses of lung cancer each year. The primary risk factor for mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Upon inhaling asbestos fibers, they can penetrate mesothelial cells and cause irritation. This ultimately leads to cancer development. Anyone who has been around asbestos, especially in regards to construction, insulation, automotive, and other similar industries, is more at risk.
When intravenous drug abusers inject tablets that contain talc, which are meant for oral use, they run the risk of developing granulomatosis. This is a condition that stems from the formation of granulomas in the lungs. These granulomas come about because of inflammation or infection caused by a foreign substance. Injecting talc into the blood can cause arterial obstruction, loss of blood flow, or granuloma formation.
The American Cancer Society documented many studies in women regarding talcum powder’s link to ovarian cancer. Applying baby powder, or any product containing talc, to the female genital area can cause powder particles to travel through the vagina. These particles can then enter the uterus and fallopian tubes, and ultimate the ovaries. One study investigated 1,300 African-American women with ovarian cancer. Baby powder use was common in 62.8% of those women, suggesting an increased cancer risk from regular talcum powder usage. A 2016 study analyzed the association of ovarian cancer and genital talc use. Results indicated that genital use of talc increased ovarian cancer risk by 33%. The risk decreased the longer a woman went without using talc in the genital area.