There's no shortage of products and substances that women are encouraged to use to “improve” their genitals – from essential oils to skin lightening creams – and doctors and gynecologists are constantly warning us that these substances can cause irritation or more dire symptoms.
Most women hate the idea of sweating, though it is a normal part of our bodily functions. To reduce sweat, they may put baby powder on the troubled areas, be it their armpits, under their breasts, or even on their privates.
Now, there's a more serious warning about one common household product: baby powder, aka talcum powder.
Research has been rumbling on for more than a decade, looking at whether the talc in talcum powder can cause cancer. A study pooling the results of eight research papers involving almost 2,000 women found an increased risk of between 20% and 30% for ovarian cancer in women who used talc for what some newspapers reporting the study call "intimate personal hygiene" but doctors call the genital area.
So should we stop dusting talc? Keep reading to find out the answer.
What exactly is talc
Talc is a naturally occurring mineral found in baby powders as well as other cosmetic and personal care products, and it's good at absorbing moisture, cutting down on friction, and preventing rashes.
For many years, parents used it to diaper babies, until doctors began discouraging it for health reasons. As for adults, many still use it around their genitals or rectum to prevent chafing or sweating. Yet it may have more troubling effects.
The talc in talcum powder comes from the crushing, drying and milling of mined talc rocks and contains minerals such as magnesium and silicon. Such products used to contain asbestos (which causes mesotheliomas – rare cancers of the tissues around the lungs). Now all talcum powder is free of it, although it still has minute fibers that take years to dissolve.
Facts and figures
As the American Cancer Society points out on its website, talc in its natural form may contain asbestos, a known carcinogen.
The FDA does not allow talc-based products to contain any asbestos. But the trouble is, cosmetics don’t have to be reviewed or approved by the FDA before they land on store shelves, so there’s no guarantee that they haven’t been contaminated.
It has been suggested that talcum powder might cause cancer in the ovaries if the powder particles (applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms, or condoms) were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary.
In July 2018, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $4.7 billion in damages to 22 women who alleged that its talc products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. Of the 22 women represented in the case and six-week trial, six had died from ovarian cancer. Their lawyers argued that the talc was contaminated with asbestos since the 1970s and that the company had failed to warn users of the risks.
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.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified talc-based powder use on the genitals and buttocks as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” But it also classified talc that contains asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have said that repeated inhalation of talc might harm the lungs. The European Union has banned talc in health and beauty products due to health and safety concerns.
Health Canada is now "considering measures to prohibit or restrict the use of talc in certain cosmetics, natural health products and non-prescription drugs".
Even those with doubts about the direct link between talc and ovarian cancer, such as gynecologists, see no reason why women should put talc anywhere near their private parts.
Inhaling talcum powder can cause respiratory problems if it enters the lungs. There are no medically necessary uses of talcum powder.
Less is more
We are not a fan of talc, but it's likely to be a very small health risk. However, avoid applying it to your underwear or sanitary towels to prevent prolonged exposure.
It is not clear if consumer products containing talcum powder increase cancer risk. Studies of personal use of talcum powder have had mixed results, although there is some suggestion of a possible increase in ovarian cancer risk. There is very little evidence at this time that any other forms of cancer are linked with consumer use of talcum powder.
Something else to keep in mind: when it comes to vaginal health solutions, sometimes less is more.
Until more information is available, people concerned about using talcum powder may want to avoid or limit their use of consumer products that contain it.
Alternatives to talc-based baby powder include the following products: corn starch powders, arrowroot starch or tapioca starch powders, oat flour, baking soda, and zinc-based diaper rash creams for babies.
For any individual woman, if there is an increased risk, the overall increase is likely to very be small. Still, talc is widely used in many products, so it is important to determine if the increased risk is real. Research in this area continues.