I read this article on Cosmopolitan earlier this week and I had to share it with you. It’s quite scary.
This week, a Los Angeles jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $417 million to an ovarian cancer patient who suited the company over talc in their iconic baby powder, a product she says she’d used on a daily basis for over 50 years leading up to her diagnosis.
“Everyone is a little bit surprised by the massive amount awarded to that poor woman,” says Kirsten Moysich, Ph.D., distinguished professor of oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer in Buffalo, NY. “The argument is that the company should have put something on the bottle to warn women of the product’s association with a very serious cancer, a dreadful disease that this woman could have had the opportunity to avoid.”
Although there’s no data that confirms with 100-percent certainty a cause-and-effect relationship between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer, this isn’t the first time courts have used existing research and anecdotal evidence to tell Johnson & Johnson to pay up: In May, a St. Louis jury awarded a Virginia woman $110.5 million in a similar lawsuit, and that follows three additional suits that favored plaintiffs who made similar claims.
Nevertheless, the product most people first encounter during their diaper days is still being sold and widely used by women of all ages for feminine hygiene. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe:
1. Before the 1970s, some baby powders may have contained cancer-causing asbestos.
Baby powder, AKA talcum powder, is made from talc, a naturally-occurring mineral that can, in its natural form, contain asbestos. Asbestos is another natural substance found in rock mines and structures built before the 1970s, when asbestos’s danger was first realized.
Research suggests asbestos appears to raise the risk of lung cancer when inhaled, with the greatest risk to construction and mine workers who are regularly exposed to it, according to the American Cancer Society. FWIW, asbestos is no longer permitted in personal care products, nor is it found in talcum powders currently sold in stores.
2. Today’s baby powder is still made from talc, which is independently associated with a slightly greater risk of ovarian cancer.
“Studies suggest that genital talc use itself may increase a person’s risk of ovarian cancer,” says Dr. Ana Tergas, MD, a gynecologist oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. The research dates back to the early ‘80s, when an ovarian cancer study that collected information on talc use reported an increased risk of developing the disease with “perineal dusting,” i.e., any sort of application in the genital area. (Some women use it on sanitary pads or diaphragms to promote dryness, or apply it generously to prevent chaffing and promote dryness in the crotch area.)
While the exact mechanism linking talc to ovarian cancer is unknown, it’s widely believed that talc that travels up the fallopian tubes may induce an inflammatory reaction that contributes to the disease, according to Dr. Tergas.
3. No one knows exactly how much powder is too much powder.
The reigning theory, according to Moysich, is that risk is dose-dependent, meaning the longer and more consistent your exposure, the greater your risk of possibly developing ovarian cancer. (But again, there’s no data confirming a cause-and-effect relationship.)
“I would definitely recommend against using it on a daily basis for an extended period of time, and I would especially warn people against using it who are already at increased risk of ovarian cancer because of their family history,” Dr. Tergas says.
4. Aging and genetics raise your risk of ovarian cancer more than talcum powder use.
While research suggests talcum powder use correlates to 30 percent to 60 percent greater risk of developing ovarian cancer, Moysich stresses that research only shows an association between powder use and cancer without definitive proof, a family history of ovarian cancer can double or triple your risk of developing ovarian cancer, according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance.
Age is another major contributor. “It’s the number one risk factor for cancer including ovarian cancer, a disease that largely affects older women since there is more opportunity for older women to be exposed to something that causes cancer,” Moysich says.
5. “Baby” talcum powders are no safer than products marketed to adults.
There’s no data suggesting powder variations designed for babies (or fancy ones designed just for adults) are extra safe compared to classic drugstore brands, according to Moysich.
6. Baby powder isn’t the only toiletry that contains talc.
It’s also found in cosmetics, soap, toothpaste, antiperspirant, gum, and certain pills, according to Johnson & Johnson. These use cases are currently permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which states that talc can be used to make facial makeup opaque or improve the feel of a product such as deodorant.
7. Experts aren’t too concerned about long-time talcum powder users developing lung cancer from talc inhalation.
While research suggests long-term exposure to natural talc fibers at work may contribute to mine workers’ heightened risk of lung cancer, the average user’s residual powder clouds poses no such risk. “Although powder is very volatile, I couldn’t imagine accidental inhalation would be a significant risk factor for lung cancer,” Moysich says. The American Cancer Society confirms this: To date, there’s no data linking cosmetic use of talcum powder to lung cancer.
8. You shouldn’t freak if you’ve used talcum powder in the past.
“Women shouldn’t feel like they’re doomed to develop ovarian cancer if they’ve used baby powder in the past,” Moysich says. “The research shows an association, not a causation. It’s just that with the publicity [of the recent lawsuits] and money being awarded, there’s a lot of hype.”
9. Most experts say you should stop using talcum powder on yourself (and your children).
“If I were a woman using it, I probably would stop,” Moysich says. “It’s avoiding an exposure that is associated with a serious cancer, and is not addictive — it’s not like tobacco. It’s not something that has substantial health benefits other than perhaps personal comfort, so it’s just not necessary.”
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