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Ovarian Cancer and Talcum Powder

This week a Missouri jury court ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $55 million to a woman who claimed their talcum-powder products caused her ovarian cancer. J&J lost another case for $72 million recently and now has close to 1,200 lawsuits alleging that the company knew about cancer risks but did not warn consumers. Ovarian cancer affects 21,000 North American women each year, but nobody knows the cause. Because it rarely causes symptoms until it has spread beyond the ovaries, it kills most patients and is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women.

Many women use talcum powder on themselves or on their babies, or sprinkle it on personal products such as sanitary napkins, diaphragms or condoms. The powder can pass through the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes to the ovaries. Talcum powder could possibly cause ovarian cancer by turning on a woman's immunity to cause inflammation. An overactive immunity can attack your own cells in the same way that it kills germs, possibly damaging your DNA to cause uncontrolled cell growth which is cancer.

Why Talcum Is Suspect
The mineral, talc, that is mined to make talcum powder can be contaminated with asbestos, which is a known carcinogen. A 1971 paper found particles of talc embedded in 75 percent of the ovarian tumors studied (J Obstet Gynaecol Br Commonw, 1971;78(3):266–272). Strict quality controls for cosmetic-grade talcum were put in place in 1976, and the American Cancer Society states that "All talcum products used in homes in the United States have been asbestos-free since the 1970s."

During World War II, shipbuilders fireproofed ships by spraying them with asbestos and as a result, suffered a very high incidence of lung cancer years later. Workers who smoked were the ones most likely to get lung cancer. When particles get into your lungs, special glands lining the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from your lungs produce large amounts of mucous. Then small hairs called cilia, lining the bronchial tubes, sweep in rhythm and move the particles and the mucous up to your mouth where you swallow both and they are cleared from your body.

Asbestos looks like barbed wire under a microscope. Its particles stick to the linings of the lungs by their barbs, which prevents the cilia from sweeping the asbestos to your mouth. Smoking paralyzes the cilia and then destroys them so you can't remove these barbed particles from your lungs. Theoretically, it is possible that breathing in talcum powder could cause lung cancer even if it has not been contaminated with asbestos, but the American Cancer Society states that, "No increased risk of lung cancer has been reported with the use of cosmetic talcum powder."

Studies on Ovarian Cancer
Some studies showed that using talcum powder regularly for many years was associated with increased risk for ovarian cancer (American Journal of Epidemiology. March, 1997), but larger and more recent studies show no association between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer. The Nurses' Health Study followed more than 120,000 women for 20 years and found no association between talcum powder and ovarian cancer (J Natl Cancer Inst, 2000 Feb 2;92(3):249-52). A follow up study reported two years ago also showed no association (J Natl Cancer Inst, 2014 Sep 10;106(9)).

No Benefits from Baby Powder or Body Powder
Today, most baby powders and body powders are made from cornstarch, which has not been linked to cancer (Am J Obstet Gynecol, March 2000;182(3):720-4). However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents not use any kind of baby powder because of possible respiratory problems, and advises that zinc oxide-based ointments are safer and more effective. Also, be aware that cosmetic products such as face powders and eye makeup do not need to be reviewed or approved by the FDA.

Baby powder will not keep you from sweating and will not keep your skin dry for more than a few minutes if you do sweat. Even though there is no data to show that asbestos-free talcum powder or cornstarch powder cause ovarian cancer, I cannot think of any reason why you would want to use it. Breathing any type of powder into your lungs increases your risk for chronic lung diseases. 

May 8th, 2016
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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