Is Using Talcum Powder Safe?

For generations, parents around the world have used talcum powder to smooth baby bottoms, dry feet and lend a sweet smell to the body as a whole. In more recent years, however, talcum powder (which is different from talc, discussed below) has come under fire for its potential health cancer risks – both to the people who mine for its ingredients as well as for the people who use it.

Especially given this product’s historical use on infants – exemplified by the fact that most of us use the term “baby powder” freely when referring to this substance – it is critical that people have a firm understanding of its uses and hazards before bringing it into their homes. For those who already have a history of use, it is understandable to want to know the potential risks before continuing application.

Here you will find the information you need to make a smart decision about talcum powder use in your own life.

What Is Talc Vs Talcum Powder?

First, a quick explanation of the difference between talc, which is a mineral, and talcum powder, which is a personal care product.

Talc is a soft clay mineral. In fact, it is the softest of minerals. On a scale of 1 to 10 mineral hardness, talc is a 1, which explains why it can be so easily ground and powdered. It is easily scratched by a fingernail, and in its natural state is a whitish, greenish or creamy color. While it is not water-soluble, it does dissolve easily in a range of mineral acids.

Talcum powder, on the other hand, is not a mineral but a formula. It uses finely powdered talc as its base, but can also include chemical compounds and fragrances. Typical baby powder usually only has a scent, while medicated talc may contain anti-fungals or other agents meant to do a specific “job.”

What Do People Use Talcum Powder For?

If you haven’t been a talcum powder user before and are trying to determine if it’s safe, it’s useful to understand why people use it.

Talc is absorbent, which therefore makes it drying. When applied to the skin, it absorbs moisture and oils, binding them in place to the powder rather than leaving them to coat the skin. The result is a significantly reduced chance of sweat and oil collection, especially in traditionally moist places such as the insides of shoes and undergarments. Many people report a higher level of comfort because of this.

Talc is also an astringent, which means that it shrinks skin and tightens pores. Because skin is one of the largest and most permeable gateways into your body, applying an astringent is an effective way to strengthen that barrier. That increases the chances of letting in irritants such as sweat, bacteria or chemicals, which can increase the chances of an infection, discomfort or odor.

In some cases, doctors will recommend talcum powder to people who experience resistant foot odor, fungus or bacterial infections. The same goes for those who have such problems in the genital or anal areas. If your doctor has recommended talc use and you’re unsure about its safety, read on to learn why its reputation is in jeopardy and how seriously you should take those claims.

Understanding Asbestos-Containing Versus Asbestos-Free Talc

Talc is under fire because of the risk of cancer that many people associate it. It’s important to understand where that perceived risk came from: asbestos. This crystalline mineral has a terrible reputation today for good reason, because it aggressively enters the lungs of miners, builders and workers, and it can cause serious problems if left untreated. Asbestos is very friable, which means it easily shatters and becomes airborne, so there really isn’t any safe way to work with it.

Unfortunately, naturally occurring talc usually contains asbestos. And like asbestos, talc is soft and so easily becomes airborne. With it, it can carry up other mineral particles, which can enter the lungs of an individual who breaths those particles in. In the case of talc, there’s really not much danger attached to the inhalation. However, in the case of asbestos – which is associated with both lung cancer and mesothelioma – there is a definite risk, at least assuming the asbestos percentage is high enough to cause concern. Naturally, any mineral that contains some asbestos is not as worrying as mining pure asbestos, but it should still be treated with caution.

However, we must distinguish between talc and talcum powder. Once talc gets to the stage where it is turned into a product and sold, the asbestos has been removed completely. Therefore, claims that talcum powder (as opposed to talc) causes cancer are likely exaggerated.

That said, let’s take a closer look at those claims and what experts have to say about them.

Talcum Powder and Cancer

The main charge leveled against talcum powder is that it can cause cancer. There are three main cancer types that can purportedly arise from prolonged exposure to talc, which are:

  • Mesothelioma: This cancer is specifically related to inhalation of asbestos, a crystalline mineral that breaks into such tiny shards that the pieces may become airborne and enter the lungs. Once there, they embed and burrow into the lining of lungs and other organs, causing irritation, inflammation and cancerous growths. While mesothelioma is extremely aggressive, it is also fairly rare in the United States, with only 3,000 new cases arising each year. The numbers may be higher around the world, where asbestos mining has not been banned. However, in the US, these numbers are typically linked to mining asbestos specifically, not talc.
  • Lung Cancer: Some claims hold that talc can also cause generalized lung cancer – again due to the incidence of naturally occurring asbestos is talc. Once more, this is usually associated with miners or industrial workers rather than consumers, who are protected via the removal of asbestos before formulating and selling the powder. Both lung cancer and mesothelioma are only tenuously associated with talc mining.
  • Ovarian Cancer: The other main cancer type is ovarian. Some studies do show a slight correlation between use of talcum powder on the genital areas and later development of ovarian cancer. However, these studies rely strongly on self-reporting years or decades after the fact, and therefore might exaggerate the role talcum powder plays in these cancer cases.

At the very least, claims of how widespread these cancers are have been overblown. In fact, according to the medical literature, there is a pretty minimal risk of cancer for those who use talcum powder. However, given that there are indications in studies that a correlation can exist, it’s important that each person make their own choice about talcum powder use – discussed more thoroughly below.

The Safety of Other Ingredients in Talcum Powder

For the most part, the other ingredients in talcum powder are pretty safe. If you’re worried about fragrances, for instance, choose a baby powder whose formula hasn’t changed in decades – which is likely indicative of its safety. Any other compounds in talc are typically medical, and you will have to vet their safety with your doctor and with your own instincts. Make sure to read the label so you can discover exactly what is in any particular talcum powder formulation.

Should You Use Talcum Powder?

As with anything else, you should use talcum powder if the benefits outweigh the risks. For a lot of people, simply keeping feet dry or using it as a preventative for baby bottoms is not a good enough reason to risk it. In such cases, it’s better to simply wash feet and shoes to keep them fresh, and to provide good diaper care to avoid rash or weeping of the nether areas in infants.

For others, however, talcum may provide benefits they can’t attain anywhere else. For instance, some people have resistant foot fungus with which they have battled for years. The fungus can cause sweat and odor, both of which talcum powder helps to prevent – even when it’s unscented. Some babies, similarly, live in hot climates or are very prone to irritation. In that case, when a doctor wants to avoid a more strongly medicated option, powder may prove the best option.

Note, finally, that any airborne mineral can prove irritating to the lungs when inhaled. For those who have asthma or other breathing difficulties, it’s probably best to stay away from the product. If you’re using it on babies and don’t have to, you might want to think twice.

In the end, it comes down to information and to what makes you feel safe. If you don’t have a strong need for this product, it might be better to wait until more research comes out about the safety of commercial talcum powder. Otherwise, you can use it without great proven risk of hazard – just do so sparingly, and you’ll have the best chance of remaining the safest and healthiest you can be.

For more information, please feel free to explore this site or send questions. We’re always happy to provide whatever answers we can!

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