Does Talcum Powder Actually Cause Cancer?

A St. Louis jury just ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $72 million in damages to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer. The lawsuit alleged that not only did Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and other products containing talc cause the woman’s ovarian cancer, but the company hid from the public its knowledge of a cancer-talc link. But does a link between talcum powder and cancer actually exist?

The most compelling evidence supporting the jury’s decision is a 1997 internal memo from a Johnson & Johnson medical consultant stating “anybody who denies” the link between talc and ovarian cancer is “denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”

That’s a seemingly damning admission from the company, but there’s little actual evidence that today’s baby powder causes ovarian cancer in women who use it for hygienic purposes. Most of the studies suggesting a link between talc and ovarian cancer rely on studies of women who used a form of talc containing asbestos—an ingredient long phased-out from baby powder. Now most talcum powder is made using corn starch and has never been linked to cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society: “Many studies in women have looked at the possible link between talcum powder and cancer of the ovary. Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase. Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk. But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person’s memory of talc use many years earlier. Two prospective cohort studies, which would not have the same type of potential bias, have not found an increased risk.”

Though it might be easy to convince a jury of a link between cancer and talc, scientific and regulatory bodies aren’t convinced. Even California—the state that requires cancer warning labels on everything from coffee to flip flops—doesn’t classify talcum powder as a carcinogen.

Talcum powder has fallen out of favor for actual use on babies and isn’t really necessary for feminine hygiene, but check out this list of “20 Brilliant Uses for Baby Powder You’ve Never Considered.”