How Does Talc Cause Cancer?

By - June 12, 2019
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To understand how talc may cause cancer, it is important to understand what talc is and where it comes from. (Cancer.org)

Talcum powder is produced from talc. This is a mineral that is comprised of magnesium, silicon and oxygen. In powder form, it absorbs moisture very well and reduces friction, which makes it useful to keep the skin dry and to prevent rash. It is used often in many cosmetic products, including baby powder and various facial and body powders. In nature, some talc can contain asbestos, which is known to cause various forms of cancer.

Guidelines Issued Regarding Asbestos in Talc

The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrances Association (CTFA) in 1976 released voluntary guidelines that stated that all talc that is used in cosmetic products in the US should not have any traces of asbestos, per their standards.

The majority of concerns about a potential link between talcum powder and cancer are focused on these points:

  • Whether those who are exposed in the long term to talc at work, such as miners, are at a higher risk of cancer from inhaling them.
  • Whether women who use talcum powder regularly in their genital region have a higher chance of ovarian cancer.

Talcum Powder and the Cancer Connection

When discussing whether talcum powder can cause cancer, it is very important to distinguish between the talc that contains asbestos and that which does not. Talc that contains asbestos is recognized generally as being able to lead to cancer if it is inhaled. The evidence about talc that does not contain asbestos is not as clear.

Clinical researchers use two sorts of clinical studies to determine if a substance causes cancer:

  • Laboratory studies: In studies that are performed in laboratories, animals are exposed to substances, often in larger doses, to see if it leads to tumors or a variety of health problems. Clinical researchers also could expose regular cells in a laboratory dish to the substance to determine if it causes changes that sometimes are seen in cancer cells. It is not always obvious if the results from these studies can apply to humans. But laboratory studies are an excellent way to determine if a substance can lead to cancer.
  • Human studies: These studies look at rates of cancer in various groups of people. Such studies may compare the rate of cancer in a group that was exposed to a substance to the rate in a certain group that was not exposed. Or, the researchers may compare the expected cancer rate in the general population rate to the study group. But it can be difficult to know what the study results mean because other factors can affect what the results are.

In a lot of cases, neither study offers enough evidence alone. So researchers often look at both types of studies to determine if a substance causes cancer.

Human Studies and Ovarian Cancer

There are questions about whether talcum powder could cause cancer in the ovaries if the talc particles go through the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes and into the ovary.

Many clinical studies in women have looked at a potential link between talcum powder and cancer in the ovaries. The results have been mixed. Some studies have reported a small, increased risk and some have reported no increase. Many studies that were case controlled found a small, higher risk of cancer. But it is important to note these types of studies can be biased; they rely on the person’s memory of their use of talc from years ago. There was one prospective cohort study, which did not have that type of possible bias, did not see a higher risk. A second study did see a small increase in risk in a certain type of ovarian cancer.

For any one woman, if there is a higher risk, the general increase is probably going to be small. Still, talcum powder is used in many cosmetic products, so it is vital to determine if the higher risk is real.

Lung Cancer and Talc

Some clinical studies of miners of talc have seen a possible higher risk of lung cancer and various respiratory diseases. Others have seen no increase in the risk of lung cancer. These clinical studies have been complicated because talc in the natural form can contain various levels of many minerals, including asbestos. This is very different from purified talc that is used in consumer items such as baby powder. When miners work underground, they may be exposed to many other substances that can enhance their risk of cancer, including radon.

What Do the Experts Say?

Various national and international agencies study many substances in the environment to see if they can lead to cancer. The American Cancer Society consults with these organizations to review the risks according to animal, laboratory and human clinical studies.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer or IARC is a division of the WHO. Its major goal is to target the various causes of cancer. The IARC has classified talc with asbestos in it as being a carcinogen for humans. But based on the lack of data from clinical studies from humans and the lack of data from laboratory animal studies, the IARC has said that talc that does not contain asbestos is not a human carcinogen.

Based on a small amount of evidence from human clinical studies of a possible link to ovarian cancer, the IARC has said that perineal (genital) use of baby powders as a possible human carcinogen.

Also, a clinical study was done in 2016 called the African American Cancer Epidemiology Study (AACES). The study did a comparison of 585 black women who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 11 different areas of the US to 740 women who did not have ovarian cancer. In the study, the use of talcum powder in the genital area was common. About 62% of the women with ovarian cancer and 52% of women who were healthy used it. The study determined that women who had used talcum powder anywhere on their body were more likely to get ovarian cancer.

Women who said they used talc in their genital region were 44% more likely to get ovarian cancer. The study showed that rather than having a risk for life of 1.3%, the women who used talcum powder would have nearly a 2% risk.  (center4research.org)

While research on talc causing cancer has been mixed, there continues to be a definite possibility that it can lead to cancers such as ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. If you have been diagnosed with cancer and were a regular user of baby powder, you should talk to a talcum powder cancer attorney in your state.

References

Talcum Powder and Cancer. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/talcum-powder-and-cancer.html

Talcum Powder and Ovarian Cancer Risk. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.center4research.org/talcum-powder-ovarian-cancer/

Melinda J.
Melinda J.

Editor-in-Chief of TalcumPowderSafety. Since 1999, she's worked across a multitude of areas of consumer protection including defective products, environmental issues, identity theft, predatory lending and more.

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