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May 9, 2016

What’s talc got to do with cancer?

by: Carmen S. Scott

My friend forwarded an email to me from a local spa announcing that it doesn’t use talcum powder, but pure cornstarch because of talc’s possible link to causing cancer. “What???” is all she wrote in the body of the email, knowing I was heavily involved in researching and studying this link. I bet many of you are asking the same question.  

With certain studies suggesting that the use of talc increases the risk of developing ovarian cancer by around a third, it is important to be cautious when using products that contain the popular mineral.

What is talc powder and why is it so popular?

Talc is a mineral substance that is comprised of magnesium, silicon and oxygen and is recognized as the world’s softest mineral. The substance is either mined or produced industrially. Talc is highly stable, odorless and extremely absorbent, making it seemingly perfect for cosmetics and hygiene products.

Talcum powder is commonly used in makeup, body powders, shampoos, lotions and even toothpastes. It has been marketed as “talc powder,” “baby powder,” or “body powder.” Johnson & Johnson sold one of the most popular brand names, Shower to Shower®, to manufacturer Valeant in 2012.

Talc has a history of containing asbestos, which we know is a human carcinogen. Despite there being talc produced without asbestos fibers, called “cosmetic talc,” there still remains little U.S. regulation surrounding talc. Since the 1970s, talcum powder used in consumer products has been required to be asbestos-free and is known as “cosmetic grade talc”. Despite cosmetic talc’s high FDA ratings, it is still a possible carcinogen if inhaled or enters the body, and long-term, frequent use has been linked with causing lung cancer and ovarian cancer. Recently, juries in two cases found for women who developed ovarian cancers following talc use.

The increased risk of cancers associated with talcum powder exposure has resulted in the banning of talc used in cosmetic products in the European Union, and the restricted use in baby products in Canada. However in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists no physical or chemical dangers for talc, only noting that the substance may have an effect on lungs and that inhalation should be avoided. It is especially important to be well informed when using beauty and body products largely composed of the dangerous mineral.

Despite all of the attractive qualities of talc, it is important to remember the not so positive and even devastating characteristics of talcum powder.

Talc Questions and Alternatives

Is corn starch a safe alternative?
Since talc was first connected to repository disease in the 1960’s, companies started producing corn starch alternatives. This is a great option if you are inclined to use body powders to prevent chaffing. There is no link between corn starch and disease, so it is an alternative worth considering if you have traditionally used talc to stay dry. Other alternatives include silk powder and finely milled oats.

  • Does my make-up contain talc?
    Maybe. You can check Safer Cosmetics or Environmental Working Group’s websites for databases of makeup ingredients. There haven’t been any published studies linking make-up use to cancer.  If you decide to rule talc cosmetics out of your daily routine, look for talc free or mica based products.
  • Stick to soap and water.
    Many doctors and hygienist believe that body powders do not actually aid in drying and freshness, some even believe they could make you more prone to infections. They recommend sticking to soap and water to stay fresh. In addition to talcum powder’s potential to cause cancer when used around the genitals, it can lead to pelvic or vaginal infections.
  • Let it breath.
    Many people use talcum powders for its ability to reduce chaffing. However this is another instance where talcum powder has the potential to creep inside your body. A better solution is to wear proper-fitting breathable materials.
  • Use of talc in infants and children.
    Because ovarian exposure to talc requires travel through the reproductive system, many studies show that the hymen is protective, therefore making babies and children not at risk. However, the inhalation risk for babies and those applying talc still exists, so alternative products should be considered.

Of course personal beauty routines are in the hands of the beholder, but I’m pleased that talc’s potential dangers are being discussed. I look forward to seeing the positive steps and healthy alternatives that the cosmetic industry will develop.