Can Talcum Powder Cause Ovarian Cancer? What Women Need to Know
Washington, D.C., September 27, 2017 - A handful of multi-million dollar jury awards to women who used baby powder with talcum, and later were diagnosed with ovarian cancer, has highlighted a decades-old question: Does talcum powder really cause ovarian cancer?
Louis Dainty, MD, regional director of gynecologic oncology, MedStar Washington Hospital Center, says even though the scientific data is very weak, women should not take the risk, however slight.
Because there is the potential for a very small increased risk of ovarian cancer with the use of talcum powder, I recommend women not use baby powder in their genital area,” he said. “If a woman has used talcum powder for these purposes, even for years or decades, she doesn’t need to run to her doctor or get special testing. Instead, just stop using the product.”
Dainty advises patients who have or care for daughters in diapers to avoid talcum powder on them. An alternative is dusting the baby with baby powder products made with cornstarch.
The possible link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder dates back to the 1960s. The initial concern sprung from a contamination of talcum powder with asbestos, a known cancer-causing agent. Asbestos is often mined alongside the mineral talc, which is the main ingredient in talcum powder. Asbestos was banned from cosmetic-grade talc in 1973, and the Food and Drug Administration reported finding no traces of asbestos in talc-based cosmetic products in 2012.
Recent studies looking at a potential link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer have been inconclusive, Dainty said. Some show a slightly increased risk, and others report no increase at all.
One criticism with many of these studies is that they relied on people’s memory of their talcum powder use. Researchers asked women with ovarian cancer if they used talcum powder on their perineum and, if so, how long they had used it and how frequently. Memory is not always perfect.
An issue of great concern is there is no screening test for ovarian cancer, like the Pap test for cervical cancer. A woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer in her lifetime is 1.6 percent. Some studies suggest that risk rises to 1.8 percent with perineal talc exposure. That translates to 18 women out of 1,000 developing ovarian cancer instead of 16. “While that may not sound like a lot,” Dainty said, “that’s two women who may not have gotten ovarian cancer if they had avoided talcum powder.”
Without a screening test, women must rely on monitoring themselves for the following symptoms, and see a gynecologist if they persist for two weeks.
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Unexplained weight gain
The main risk factor for developing ovarian cancer is age. The average age of a woman with ovarian cancer is 63. The older women get, the higher their risk for developing the disease.
The most commonly talked about ovarian cancer risk is familial risk, or a disease that runs in the family. While most ovarian cancers are not hereditary, family history certainly is very important. Genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, account for about 15 percent of all ovarian cancers.
If a first-degree family member—parents, siblings or children—had ovarian cancer or breast cancer before age 50, women may want to consider seeing a geneticist to determine their potential risk. Breast cancer is also included because BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations increase a person’s risk for multiple cancers, including breast and ovarian.
“There’s nothing you can do about getting older or your genetic makeup, but you can do something about your weight, which is the No. 1 modifiable risk factor for ovarian cancer,” Dainty said. “If you are 25 pounds overweight, your ovarian cancer risk rises 400 percent. So while talcum powder may slightly increase your risk of ovarian cancer, it’s minimal compared to the risk of carrying extra weight.”