Talc is a natural mineral made up of four elements: magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen. It is the softest mineral available and is used in powder form, in cosmetics and makeup, and paint. Talc has been used since times of antiquity and in the United States has been marketed for diaper rash by Johnson and Johnson since 1893. There still is a great deal of controversy regarding the role of talc in causing cancer and respiratory disease, and there has been a discussion of its role in ovarian, endometrial, and lung cancer. No clear findings have emerged, aside from a possible weak link to ovarian cancer as mentioned below. In infants, serious aspiration of the powder can take place, and great caution should be taken (Mofenson et al, Pediatrics, August 1981.)
The FDA very recently reported that “out of an abundance of caution” Johnson and Johnson is voluntarily stating a recall in the US of a specific batch of Johnson’s Baby Powder, in response to an FDA test indicating the presence of “sub-trace levels of chrysotile asbestos” contamination (Lot #22318RB) The report (FDA web bulletin Oct 18, 2019) mentions the claim of the Johnson and Johnson company ascertaining that testing over the past 40 years have shown that their consumer products do not contain asbestos. In case you use that product, you might check the lot number. Of recent interest are the legal advertisements about ovarian cancer and its relationship to talc powder use. Reportedly, over 6000 lawsuits have been filed, mostly from women with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer who have alledged they got the disease after years of using talc powder on their genital area (Healthline.com)
The American Cancer Society has published helpful material on talcum powder which is a mineral similar to the cancer-causing asbestos, and often mined in close proximity to where the other is mined. That article mentions that studies show mixed results in terms of causality or relationship between talc use and ovarian cancer, and quotes the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, which stated that asbestos-free talc is not classifiable as to carcinogenicity (cancer-causing potential) in humans, but that use of talc on the groin/genital area is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
A report published in 2018 reviewed 27 studies, looking into this possible association between talc and ovarian cancer found in conclusion a “weak but statistically significant association.” (Berge et al, European Cancer Prevention May 2018) The aggregate relative risk for ovarian cancer in talc powder users was 1.24. In other words, a 24% increase in the risk of getting ovarian cancer in those exposed to talc.
Most talc comes from China and is presumably asbestos-free, but how much of it undergoes rigorous testing is an unanswered question.
What are some alternatives to talc-based baby powder? Consider corn starch powders, arrowroot starch or tapioca starch powders, oat flour, and zinc-based diaper rash ointments (source: Healthline.com).
Dr. Fred R Bakht, Board Certified Occupational Medicine Physician in Houston, is also certified in Family Practice and has been practicing in Houston for over 35 years, caring for generations of families.