Here’s what you need to know about baby powder and cancer risk

Baby powder
Baby powder might increase ovarian cancer risk. Austin Kirk/Flickr

The INSIDER Summary:

  • You might have heard about a possible link between baby powder and cancer.
  • But experts say we still don’t know with 100% certainty whether using baby powder actually increases risk for the disease.
  • The American Cancer Society says people concerned about the possible risk “may want to avoid or limit” exposure.

Thanks to a number of recent, high-profile lawsuits, you might have heard about a possible link between baby powder and cancer. In particular, some women have claimed that baby powder caused them to get ovarian cancer.

Given all the buzz, it’s natural to wonder whether the product is safe. So should you should really swear off baby powder forever — or is the risk being over-hyped? Unfortunately, the answer still isn’t totally clear.

Here’s what you need to know.

The ingredient in question is called talcum powder.

Baby powder on hand

Baby powder (and many other cosmetic products) often contain talcum powder. It’s made from a naturally occurring mineral called talc. In its natural form, talc contains asbestos — a substance that definitely does cause cancer when inhaled. However, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says that talcum powder products sold in the U.S. have been free of asbestos since the 1970s.

Studies have focused on lung cancer and ovarian cancer.

There are two main concerns when it comes to talcum powder and cancer risk, according to the ACS. The first is whether people who are exposed to talc at work (like talc miners) could get lung cancer by breathing it in. The second is whether women who put talcum powder on their genital area could be at higher risk for ovarian cancer.

Let’s start with lung cancer: Though there is some evidence that people who mine or work with natural talc can be at an increased risk for lung cancer, the ACS says that there has been no reported link between lung cancer and cosmetic products that contain talcum powder.

Ovarian cancer is a bit different.

Experts say it’s possible that bits of talcum powder could actually move into the body when it’s applied on the genitals.

Woman holding stomach nausea

“There is some evidence that talc particles may migrate through the genital tract, through the uterus and Fallopian tubes, thus exposing the ovaries […] to the substance,” gynecologist Daniel M. Breitkopf, MD, wrote for the Mayo Clinic.

But we still don’t know whether those particles can actually lead to cancer. Some studies have found that women who use talcum powder do have a small increase in their risk of ovarian cancer. But the ACS notes that these studies might be biased because they required women to remember details about their talcum powder use from many years earlier. This type of information-gathering is considered less reliable — we just don’t have perfect memories.

Two better-designed studies — including one that followed roughly 60,000 women over 12 years — did not find an increased risk. But the New York Times reported that this study also had critics who claimed it didn’t last long enough or include enough women.

Right now, the International Agency for Research on Cancer still says that using talcum powder in the genital area is “possibly” cancer-causing to humans. On the other hand, a report from the National Cancer Institute acknowledges these “inconsistent” findings, but still says the “weight of the evidence” doesn’t support a link between ovarian cancer risk and using talcum powder in the genital area. In short: It’s complicated.

The bottom line is that we don’t know for sure.

And there’s really no way for scientists to figure out, with 100% certainty, whether or not talcum powder can up your risk for cancer.

As the New York Times noted last year, there will never be a study in which scientists deliberately expose people to talcum powder to see if they develop cancer or not. An experiment like that wouldn’t be ethical, first of all. But it also wouldn’t be practical, since cancer takes years to develop and can be influenced by tons of different factors, like your genes and other substances in your environment.

When it comes to ovarian cancer in particular, the ACS says that if there is an increased risk, it’s likely very small.

But the organisation also says that if you’re worried, you can just stop using talcum powder products. Some doctors have suggested trying cornstarch-based products instead, or just skipping powders altogether. Remember that you don’t really need to freshen up your vagina at all — it keeps itself clean on its own.

Finally, women should know about other risk factors for ovarian cancer, including age; family history; certain genetic mutations; a history of breast, uterine, or colon cancer; having endometriosis; not having children; and having an Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish background. Read more about ovarian cancer over at the CDC.

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