Cancer myth: Talcum powder and cancer

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Origin of the myth

Talc deposits can be located near asbestos deposits since the two minerals are chemically similar. The fear of asbestos contamination of processed talcum powder is the basis of the myth that using talcum powder can cause cancer.

Current evidence

Since 1973, talcum powders are required by law to be asbestos-free.  However, a number of studies have been conducted on the link between ovarian cancer and using asbestos-free talcum powder on the external genital (perineal) area.

A study published in 1997 found that women with ovarian cancer were more likely to have used talcum powder or genital deodorant on their perineal area.  Women who had used these products were 50-90% more likely to develop ovarian cancer.  This study measured past use of talcum powder, some of which would have been prior to regulation of asbestos in talcum powder.1

A meta-analysis of 16 studies and 11,933 participants found that an increase in ovarian cancer risk was associated with the use of talc, but did not find a causal link.  The increase in risk was attributed to other (confounding) factors.  For a causal link to be established, higher doses should lead to increased risk (dose-response).  As the effect was not dose dependent, interpretation of the result should be cautious.2

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies talc-based body powders as possibly carcinogenic to humans.3 There is limited evidence in humans of a weak association between perineal use of talc-based body powder and an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Some, but not all, studies have found a modest excess in risk, but there are concerns that some of the substances called ‘talc’ in these studies may have contained quartz and other potentially carcinogenic materials. The IARC’s classification of talcum powder as a ‘possible’ carcinogen reflects the inconclusive state of the evidence. Further research would be needed to determine if and how talcum powder might increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

The US Report on Carcinogens is a list of known or reasonably anticipated human carcinogens (cancer causing substances). Magnesium trisilicate, from which talcum powder is produced, is not included in this list.3, 4

Summary

Talcum powder is an interesting example of a cancer myth with a foundation in truth.  Prior to the regulation of talcum powder in 1973, the asbestos in talc could reasonably be anticipated to increase cancer risk.  Now, though, talc is processed differently and is free of asbestos. The current evidence is inconsistent and insufficient to conclude that the use of talcum powder on the external genitals increases the risk of cancer, specifically ovarian cancer.

References

  1. Cook, L.S., M.L. Kamb, and N.S. Weiss, Perineal powder exposure and the risk of ovarian cancer. Am J Epidemiol, 1997. 145(5): p. 459-65.
  2. Huncharek, M., J.F. Geschwind, and B. Kupelnick, Perineal application of cosmetic talc and risk of invasive epithelial ovarian cancer: a meta-analysis of 11,933 subjects from sixteen observational studies. Anticancer Res, 2003. 23(2C): p. 1955-60.
  3. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Volume 93: Carbon Black, Titanium Dioxide and Non-Asbestiform Talc, in IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, IARC, Editor. 2006, IARC: Lyon, France.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 12th Report on Carcinogens. 2011, Public Health Service - National Toxicology Program.

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