Cancer myth: Talcum powder and cancer
Talcum powder is made from talc, the softest mineral on earth. Talc deposits are often located near asbestos ore since the two minerals are chemically similar. This triggered fears in the 1960s that mined talc could be contaminated with asbestos and cause cancer.
Home talc products have been asbestos-free since the 1970s but the debate continues today. This topic has received increasing media attention due to ongoing litigation in the US.
Studies on a possible link between body talcum powder and cancer have produced mixed results.
Since 1973, talcum powders for use at home have been required by law to be asbestos free. It is hypothesised that asbestos-free talc body powders could produce an inflammatory response that may increase the risk of cancer.
Three reviews have been published recently to determine whether perineal talc use is associated with ovarian cancer. These reviews considered 27 published studies and concluded that there may be a weak association between perineal talc use and the risk of ovarian cancer1-3; however, this association disappears when only very robust studies are included.
There are a small number of studies that have looked at talc use and the risk of endometrial cancer4-6. Overall the findings have been inconsistent. One study found a small increased risk in post-menopausal women only but this has not been confirmed by later studies.
There have also been questions raised as to whether inhaling talc incidentally could cause an increase in cancer risk. Analysis of data gathered over many years looking at the health of talc miners shows no increase in risk in mesothelioma7. Talc miners are subject to very high levels of talc exposure. These findings suggest that consumer use of talc would pose no risk of mesothelioma.
In light of the inconclusive state of the evidence, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies talc-based body powders as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)8. Further research would be required 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 list9.
The current evidence is insufficient to conclude that the use of talcum powder on the external genitals is linked to ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer or mesothelioma. If there is a risk, it is likely to be small. While the matter remains unresolved, women who wish to take all precautions could avoid the use of genital powders or opt for powders that contain cornstarch instead of talc.
1. Berge, W., Mundt, K., Luu, H., & Boffetta, P., 2018, 'Genital use of talc and risk of ovarian cancer: a meta-analysis', European Journal of Cancer Prevention, 27(3):248-257.
2. Penninkilampi, R. & Eslick, G., 2018. 'Perineal talc use and ovarian cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis', Epidemiology, 29(1):41-49.
3. Taher, M., Farhat, N., Karyakina, N., Shilnikova, N., Ramoju, S., Gravel, C., Krishnan, K., Mattison, D., Wen, S. & Krewski, D., 2019, 'Critical review of the association between perineal use of talc powder and risk of ovarian cancer', Reproductive Toxicology, 90:88-101.
4. Karageorgi, S., Gates, M., Hankinson, S. & De Vivo, I. 2010. 'Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers and prevention: a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research', cosponsored by the American Society of Preventative Oncology, 19(5):1269-75.
5. Crawford, L., Reeves, K., Luisi, N., Balasubramanian, R. & Sturgeon, S. 2012. 'Perineal powder use and risk of endometrial cancer in post-menopausal women', Cancer Causes and Control, 23(10):1673-80.
6. Neill, A., Nagle, C., Spurdel, A. & Webb, P. 2012. 'Use of talcum powder and endometrial cancer risk', Cancer Causes and Control, 23(10):513-519.
7. Marsh, G., Ierardi, A., Benson, S. & Finley, B. 2019. 'Occupational exposures to cosmetic talc and risk of mesothelioma: an upadted pooled cohort and statistical power analysis with consideration of latency period', Inhalation Toxicology, 31(6):213-223.
8. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Volume 93: Carbon Black, Titanium Dioxide and Talc, in IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, IARC, Editor. 2010, IARC: Lyon, France.
9. National Toxicology Program, 2016, Report on Carcinogens 14th Edition, Research Triangle Park, NC:U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,, Public Health Service.