Does talcum powder cause cancer? A 1971 study by W. J. Henderson et al involving an extraction-replication technique to examine tissue from patients with ovarian cervical tumor found particles of talc embedded in 75 percent of the obtained tumor tissues. This finding stirred further inquiries regarding the link between talcum powder and cancer.
Talc is a mineral composed of hydrated magnesium silicate. It has several industrial uses including the manufacturing or production of ceramics, electric cables, paper, paint and coatings, and rubber, among others. The most popular and commercialised use of talc or talcum powder is in the production of baby powder—an astringent powder used for preventing diaper rash or as a deodorant.
The hypothesised link between talcum powder and cancer first emerged from the understanding that some talc might contain traces of asbestos— a known carcinogen linked to the development of lung cancer and ovarian cancer. Talc mineral deposits sometime coexist with asbestos ore. However, stringent quality control since 1976 that include determining between cosmetic-grade and food-grade talc between industrial-grade talc has rendered this as non-issue.
Others have also hypothesised a link between talcum powder and cancer because of the chemical similarity of talc to asbestos.
Several earlier case-control studies have further associated the use of talk with an increased risk of ovarian cancer. However, according to researchers D. M. Gertic et al, the established association was controversial because of limited supporting biologic evidence and the potential for recall bas or selection bias in these case-control studies.
Gertic et al nonetheless conducted a prospective cohort study that involved enrolling 121,700 female registered nurses in the United States in 1976. They ascertained talc use in 1982 using a self-administered questionnaire and after exclusion, 78,300 female registered nurses formed the cohort for analysis.
From the cohort, there were 307 cases of epithelial ovarian cancers further confirmed by medical review and inclusion criteria. Despite these, analysis of the cohort revealed that there was no overall association between talc use and epithelial ovarian cancer and no increase risk of ovarian cancer with increasing frequency of talc use. Gertic et al concluded that their results provided little support for any substantial association between genital or perineal talc use and overall ovarian cancer risk although this perineal use may modestly increase risk of invasive serious ovarian cancer.
Another study by Stalo Karageorgi et al that involved finding an association between perineal use of talcum powder and endometrial cancer risk revealed additional association relating non-hormonal risk factors. They analysed 66,028 women with 599 incident cases of invasive endometrial adenocarcinoma diagnosed between 1982 and 2004.
Endometrial cancer or endometrial carcinoma is a type of cancer of the uterus that starts in the endometrium or the inner lining of the uterus.
Results of the study revealed no observed overall association. However, the association varied by menopausal status. There was also a positive association observed among postmenopausal women linking the ever use of talcum powder with a 21 percent increase in risk of endometrial cancer. Regular or at least once a week use of talcum powder was associated with a 24 increase in risk. Karageorgi et al also observed a borderline increase in risk with increasing frequency of use. They concluded that perineal use of talcum powder increases the risk of endometrial cancer, particularly among postmenopausal women.
There are other studies investigating the link between perineal use of talcum powder and cancer, especially the development of specific types of cancer such as ovarian and uterus cancer in women. B. L. Harlow and P. A. Hartge reviewed some these studies conducted before 1995. They concluded it was plausible that talc could cause ovarian cancer but conclusive evidence remains inexistent.
However, despite these studies, there is still no direct causation. It also remains unclear how talcum powder can possibly trigger the development of cancer. The separate studies of Harlow and Hartge, and Henderson et al had called for the need to establish a biological evidence including epidemiologic studies and clinicopathological studies to understand further the link between talcum powder and cancer.
The American Cancer Society mentioned that talcum powder might cause cancer in the ovaries if the fine or pulverised minerals were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary after application to the genital area or using napkins containing talc.
But the organisation reiterated that the findings of conducted studies linking talcum powder and ovarian cancer have been mixed. Some studies reported a slightly increase in risk while some reported the absence of risk. The same is also true for studies linking talcum powder and endometrial cancer.
Research in this area continues. It is important to take note of the fact that the International Agency for Research on Cancer or IARC of the World Health Organisation classified talc that contains asbestos as carcinogenic to humans. However, based on the lack of data from human studies and limited data in lab animal studies, IARC classifies inhaled talc with no asbestos as not carcinogenic to humans. Furthermore, based on studies linking talcum powder and ovarian cancer, the IARC classifies perineal use of talc-based products such as baby powder with no asbestos as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
Further details of the study of Henderson et al are in the article “Talc and Carcinoma of the Ovary and Cervix” published in March 1971 in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Further details of the study of Gertic et al are in the article “Prospective Study of Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer” published in 2000 in the Japanese Journal of Clinical Oncology. Further details of the study of Karageorgi et al are in the article “Perineal Use of Talcum Powder and Endometrial Cancer Risk” published in May 2010 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention. Details of the study of Harlow and Hartge are in the article “A Review of Perineal Talc Exposure and Risk of Ovarian Cancer” published in 1995 in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.