We all strive to be as ecologically sound and environmentally friendly as we can these days, especially when it comes to our beauty routines. What could be more natural than using talcum powder? It’s a product that has been used on babies, children and adults for many generations.
What does it consist of? We’re probably more familiar with one of it’s brand names ‘baby powder’ and it’s main constituent parts are magnesium, silicon and oxygen. Looking at those specific minerals, it appears to be pretty perfect. A natural product that can be used to help absorb excess moisture without drying the upper levels of the epidermis and doesn’t compromise hygiene or condition of the skin itself.
However, in recent years there have been a raft of reports in the press relating to how potentially unsafe talc could be, with stories of people who have potentially become ill after using it for many years.
The other side of the story is quite different, manufacturers of these products and health officials claim there is no danger to using talcum powder and we’re unlikely to become ill from repeated usage of it. Why is it getting such a bad press? Here, we investigate the two halves of the argument as to whether or not talcum powder is safe to use.
Talcum Powder – The Case For
Talcum powder has a long history of being used in consumer products, and it’s been added as an ingredient in a range of very varied cosmetic preparations. You may even have used it without knowing. If you have any of the following products in your personal care routine, check the ingredients label, as you’ll often find that talc is listed:
|Products with Talcum Powder|
|Soap||Shower Gels||Bath Bombs||Hand & Body Lotion|
|Feminine Hygiene Preparations||Face Masks||Toothpaste||Deodorants|
In makeup Talcum Powder will often appear as a filler in products like:
If you turn the packaging over you’ll either see it listed as ‘talc’, ‘talcum powder’ or ‘cosmetic talc’.
Problems have arisen in recent years over claims that regularly using talcum powder can raise the risk of women developing cancer of the ovaries. Naturally, major cosmetic brands who use talc in their preparations have been keen to point out that it is very safe to use.
One of the main producers of this product is Johnson and Johnson and they have, after extensive studying, alongside the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query Editorial Board, come to the conclusion that:
“The weight of evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer.”
This information is as recent as April 2017 and the mainstay of the argument in favor of continuing to use talc is that ‘no government health authority has concluded that talc can cause ovarian cancer’.
Clinical studies into the safety of Talc
Undertaking clinical study into anything which requires stringent medical research can be tricky, and the results difficult to interpret. Companies who are seeking to prove the efficacy and safety of cosmetic products will therefore use something called a prospective cohort study instead.
This is a type of study in which different groups of people are asked questions relating to risk factors and usage of certain products. They are then followed for a short period of time so that relevant data can be collected and analyzed.
To get a better understanding, over previous decades these sorts of studies have been used to understand links between smoking and lung cancer, or whether high cholesterol and heart disease are interconnected.
In terms of identifying any potential issues that correlate use of talcum powder with the chances of developing ovarian cancer, there are three major cohort studies that have been undertaken, involving just under two hundred thousand women and which have been running between six and twenty-four years. Here we’ll examine these studies and what they have found:
USA NHS Study
Of all the cohort studies into the issue of talc and female health, the US NHS (Nurses’ Health Study) is the largest that has ever been undertaken.
It is funded by the US Government and has been operational since 1976. It aims to look into risk factors for most major chronic diseases in women for the last forty-three years. Some of the results of this study have helped develop and improve hormone therapies for breast cancers and also to expose the links between smoking and instances of chronic heart disease in females.
The sector of the cohort study which examined the use of talc considered responses and reports from well over seventy-eight thousand women, each of them followed up for twenty-four years. These women were asked if they had ever regularly used talcum powder on either their genital area, their regular monthly sanitary protection or both.
Forty percent of women asked the questions answered in the affirmative and were put into a ‘Talc User Group’. This equates to just under thirty-two thousand women. For the entire period of the study, these women who used talc regularly showed no overall increase in the risk of contracting ovarian cancer, to the women who did not use talc or talc products. There was also no difference to risk whether the women were regular, or occasional users of talcum powder.
The WHI Study
In 1991 The Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) was established by the USA National Institutes of Health, in order to study the health, wellbeing and lifestyles of postmenopausal women. They too carried out a cohort study on talc use and risk of contracting reproductive cancers.
The WHI Study involved some sixty-one thousand women. Of this group, over fifty percent admitted to using talcum powder on the same areas mentioned in the US NHS study.
These women were followed between the years 1993 and 2012. It was found that of well over thirty-two thousand women followed, there was again, no overall increase in the risk of contracting female reproductive cancers due to use of talcum powder.
The Sister Study
Between the years 2003-2009, the Sister Study was carried out, in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health. In enrolled over forty-one thousand women in the USA and Puerto Rico, who were aged between thirty five and seventy four. The other main caveat of the study was that any woman enrolled had to have a sister or half-sister who had been diagnosed with breast cancer already.
This study went a step further in that it also included analysis of participants to identify any potential associations between talc use, douching and female reproductive cancers. In the six year study, forty one thousand women were questioned. Of those, just under six thousand women said they regularly used talc or douched. These six thousand women, by the end of the cohort study showed no increased risk of contracting ovarian cancer from using talc. There was a slight increased risk of developing such carcinoma if the women douched.
These large scale studies have shown, often over long periods of time, that there is little risk to women who might use talc on a regular basis, to go on to develop female reproductive cancers.
However, stories and reports in the press have always persisted. It’s now time to look at the case against talc and whether it has any merit.
Talcum Powder – The Case Against
Whilst we’ve seen incontrovertible evidence in the form of cohort studies that claim talcum powder is totally safe to use there are some scientists who have been warning about the potential dangers it poses for some fifty years now.
Aside from this, in the last two years, cosmetic giant Johnson and Johnson has paid out more than $700 million dollars for lawsuits surrounding the use of talcum powder and the increased risk of contracting female reproductive cancers.
It seems some of the issue with concerns regarding the safety of talcum powder stems from the fact that although it’s a natural product, it is mined in close proximity to asbestos. Which although also a naturally occurring substance, is known to have carcinogenic effects.
The FDA have stated that in order “to prevent contamination of talc with asbestos, it is essential to select talc mining sites carefully and take steps to purify the ore sufficiently.” The FDA also consider it unacceptable for any talc being used for cosmetic purposes to be contaminated with asbestos. All well and good, and as it should be. However, at the current time of writing there is still no federal mandate which allows for the testing and safety of ingredients and cosmetics before they wind up on the shelves of drug stores and grocery stores.
FDA 2009 Study into Talc
Nine years ago in 2009, the FDA asked a group of nine talc suppliers to take part in a study they were conducting. In order to do so, these nine participants had to send in samples of their talc. Of the nine requests, it seems only four suppliers complied. In the meantime, thirty-four different cosmetic products containing talc were purchased in the Washington DC area. These were then sent to labs, to be tested for asbestos contamination.
Although the test results showed no trace of contamination, the FDA made moves to suggest that the findings were flawed as only four suppliers gave samples and only thirty-four products were tested. The FDA stated that this does not prove that all talc containing products sold in the USA are free from any form of asbestos contamination.
Talcum Powder Cancer Scare Stories
Talc Linked to Increased risk of Ovarian Cancer
The American Cancer Society say there are varied studies which link talcum powder to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. The claim that if a woman applies any product containing talc to her genital area, that talc particles can travel through the vagina, up into the uterus, fallopian tubes and finally to the ovaries.
Indeed, the first study suggesting that there was any sort of connection between the two, was released forty-seven years ago in 1971. Talc particles had been found in ovarian tumors in humans. Nine years later in 1982, another study put the same link forward.
Two years ago, in 2016, a study published in Epidemiology looked at the relationship between ovarian cancer and use of talc on the genitals. A study group of just over two thousand women with ovarian cancer and the same number of women without were used as control groups.
Results from the data showed that use of talc on the genitals raised the risk of contracting reproductive cancers by thirty three percent. Contrary to the studies seen earlier, the risk increased the more women used talcum powder. In a study of more than a thousand African American women, the results of which were published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, found that talcum powder use was likely for over sixty percent of the women studied – all of whom had ovarian cancer. This implied there was an association between the two.
Talcum Powder and the effects on the lungs
We’ve so far merely examined the effects talc might or might not have on the health of the reproductive organs. However, we’ve yet to consider the effects on the health of breathing it in.
Inhaling talcum powder directly is not seen as being connected to the development of lung cancer, there are some studies which have shown there may be a slightly increased risk of contracting lung cancer and other respiratory tract illnesses among the people who mine for talc. However, this seems to be solely related to the different forms of asbestos that can contaminate the talcum powder itself.
Three years ago, in 2015, research published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine noted that there was an increase in mortality from lung cancer amongst those people who mined talc. The data was inconclusive however, as it could not be adjusted to measure the effects of talc only, and it was not clear whether miners had also been exposed to other carcinogens. There is a type of lung condition named pulmonary talcosis, which although a relatively rare illness is caused primarily by inhaling talc due to occupational exposure.
In the British Medical Journal, a report highlights the case of a twenty four year old mother who routinely inhaled cosmetic grade talcum powder. A decade on from this, she developed pulmonary talcosis. The main symptoms of this are irritated airways, chronic coughing and problems with breathing.
Breathing issues after inhaling talc are sometimes present in infants and children, too. In the USA, poison control center reports have shown that there are incidences of small babies and infants inhaling talc during diaper changes. This inhalation can dry the mucous membranes and affect breathing.
One particularly severe case also published in the British Medical Journal highlighted that of a three month old baby who had talcum powder spilt on his face. Having ingested some of it, he immediately vomited and had to be admitted to hospital a short time later with breathing difficulties. Once his condition had been stabilised he reportedly vomited up all the talcum powder he had ingested, and his condition improved.
As with anything of this nature, that has the ability to affect your life, or your health, it is better to weight up the evidence on an individual basis. It’s clear there are arguments on both sides that offer some compelling evidence for and against the usage of talc as a consumer product. Whilst it is true that there is some anecdotal evidence that talc can potentially cause reproductive tumors or other conditions which might affect the lungs, some of the work on those studies is now over forty years old, and science has moved on a great deal in that time. The cohort studies, carried out over many decades and on a very large scale, might provide the best source of sensible information to help you make your mind up.
It’s also clear the FDA need to step up and introduce better methods of screening and testing cosmetic products containing talc, and also, perhaps on a more general level too – to ensure greater levels of transparency and public safety. In the meantime, if you are feeling concerned, the best course of action is to speak to a healthcare professional, especially if you are worried you might be experiencing some of the symptoms concurrent with reproductive cancers.
There are always alternatives to talcum powder on the market, and some cosmetic brands are now marking their products as being ‘talc free’ in a bid to placate worried consumers. Look for those on the shelves in department stores.
Resources & Further Reading