Talcum Powder: The Hidden Dangers
May 13

By SAM EPSTEIN MD
baby_powder
You’ve probably used it, or had it sprinkled on you at some time in your life. It’s processed from a soft mineral compound of magnesium silicate, and is called talcum powder or just talc.

Talcum dusting powder is commonly used to reduce rashes and diaper irritation in babies and infants. But this practice is dangerous. It can result in the inhalation of significant amounts of powder, causing acute or chronic lung irritation, known as talcosis. However, this risk is readily avoidable as cornstarch powder is a safe and reliable alternative.

Manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, and widely distributed by Osco and Walgreens, besides other drug stores, women have been persuaded by advertisements to dust themselves with talcum powder to mask alleged genital odors. Not surprisingly, the powder has become a symbol of freshness and cleanliness for over five decades.

Warning on harmful effects of talc:

The first warning of the dangers of genital talc came in a 1971 report on the identification of talc particles in ovarian cancers, a finding sharply contested by Dr. G.Y. Hildick-Smith, Johnson & Johnson’s medical director. However, a subsequent publication in the prestigious The Lancet warned that “The potentially harmful effects of talc . . . in the ovary . . . should not be ignored.”

This warning was confirmed in a 1992 publication in Obstetrics & Gynecology which reported that a woman’s frequent talc use on her genitals increased her risk of ovarian cancer by threefold. The talc in question was simple brand or generic ‘baby powder.’

Subsequent to the 1992 report, at least a dozen other major science articles documenting the link between talc and ovarian cancer appeared in leading medical journals such as Cancer, The Lancet, and Oncology. The capstone of this research case against talc came in 2003 when the journal Anticancer Research published a ‘meta-analysis,’ or large scale review, of 16 previous published studies involving 11,933 women; a 33 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer was confirmed.

Not surprisingly, the mortality of ovarian cancer in women 65 years of age and older has escalated sharply, especially in black women who have a higher rate of talc use than other races.
Nearly 16,000 women in the U.S. die from ovarian cancer each year, which means it is the fourth most common fatal cancer in women. By some estimates, one out of five women regularly applies talc to her genitals. This usage occurs either through direct application, or as a result of tampons, sanitary pads and diaphragms that have been dusted with talc.

Awareness of the danger:

More acknowledgment of talc’s dangers emerged even from the cosmetics industry. The president of the industry’s Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association, Edward Kavanaugh, conceded in 2002 that talc is toxic and “can reach the human ovaries.” Yet, inexplicably, talc manufacturers failed to warn women that the product could be dangerous to their health.

Nor has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even shown casual concern about the dangers of talc. The closest admission to this effect came in 1993 when the Acting Associate Commissioner for Legislative Affairs of the Department of Health and Human Services admitted “we are aware that there have been reports in the medical literature between frequent female perineal talc dusting over a protracted period of years, and an incremental increase in the statistical odds of subsequent development of certain ovarian cancers.” Then, amazingly, this official went on to say that the FDA “is not considering to ban, restrict or require a warning statement on the label of talc containing products.”

Aware of talc’s extreme dangers and alarmed by continued governmental unresponsiveness, in 1994 the Cancer Prevention Coalition, supported by the New York Center for Constitutional Rights, submitted a Citizen’s Petition to the FDA. This requested that talc genital dusting powder be labeled with an explicit warning of the major risks of ovarian cancer. However, the FDA again denied this petition.

In May 2008, the Cancer Prevention Coalition submitted another Citizen’s Petition to the FDA. This was endorsed by a range of groups including the Organic Consumers Association, the International Association for Humanitarian Medicine, and Dr. Faye Williams of the National Congress of Black Women. We cited new scientific evidence on the dangers of talc, and requested the FDA to mandate that all talc products be labeled with this type of warning: “Frequent application of talcum powder in the female genital area substantially increases the risk of ovarian cancer.” However, Andrew von Eschenbach, M.D., then Commissioner of the FDA, failed to respond to this petition.

It is anticipated that Margaret Hamburg, M.D., the highly respected new FDA Commissioner, will take prompt regulatory action to protect unsuspecting women from the extreme dangers of talc.

Question: Were you aware that using talcum is dangerous?

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  • Marion Brandt

    I have been aware of various reports over the years about the dangers of talc. As a black woman, I have early memories of being sprinkled with it after a bath as a young child. Also, my mother used it liberally – it was associated with feeling and smelling 'fresh and clean'.

    Like deodourant, which has had many a scare story attached to it over the years, one fears as a consumer,that something is not quite right and that big business has too much to lose if it were banned.

    I live in the UK and will be asking some questions of the major phramacies about talc, for the sake of my health, my daughter's health and the same for all my friends and family.

  • Christine

    Thanks for this article. I had heard talk about the dangers, in coversation…but the studies presented here have put the issue to rest for me. No more talcum powder

  • Diane

    I suppose that using talc as a deodorant is just as dangerous, right? I don't own a single container of the stuff, but I knoe someone who uses talc in place of deodorant.

  • Angela Willis

    Why am I just finding this out?

  • Aolenek

    I had absolutely no idea, and I consider myself to be pretty health concious. I will tell both of my daughter immediatly in the hopes that they will not ever consider this as a solution for genital odors or chafing.

  • Helen

    I have no idea.  As a reflexologist I use talcum powder with every client to dry their feet prior to giving him/her a reflexology session. The skin around my eyes and eyebrows have become very sensitive lately, dry and itchy.  Be aware.  I researched a good substitute is a combination of arrowroot powder and Kaolin white clay.  

  • Balu

    i eat baby powder, in fact i’m addicted to it and i need help!!

  • http://bankami.net/ Carlos Santiago

    dayyum!

  • Jessica

    I had no idea talc was harmful! Definitely not going to buy regular baby powder for my kiddos ever again.

    Primal Pit Paste is a great company making deodorants and also body powders free from the harmful ingredients found in modern formulas. Check them out!