Women who use talcum powder may not be at risk of getting ovarian cancer, finds study

Experts say though the study is elaborate and competent, it could not entirely rule out a link between cancer and talc, which is a carcinogenic used in powder


                            Women who use talcum powder may not be at risk of getting ovarian cancer, finds study
(Getty Images)

The use of talcum powder in the genital area may not increase ovarian cancer risk, according to a large study conducted on at least 250,000 women.

"This represents the best data we have on the topic," the study's lead author Katie O'Brien, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told NBC news.

However, according to the research team, the study may have failed in identifying a small risk.

The findings of the study contradict some of the earlier studies that claimed that using talcum powder might make people more susceptible to ovarian cancer. They suspected that the talcum powder was entering the ovaries through the vagina and uterus.

Talcum powder is made from talc, a mineral mainly made of the elements magnesium, silicon, and oxygen, according to American Cancer Society. Because it absorbs moisture well and helps cut down on friction, women use the powder to keep their skin dry and to prevent rashes. "Some women apply powder to their genitals, either through direct application or on underwear, sanitary napkins, diaphragms or tampons," says the study.

Talc naturally contains asbestos, a carcinogen: a substance known to cause cancers in and around the lungs when inhaled. This propelled all US-based manufacturers of cosmetic talc to agree to ban asbestos in 1976.

In 2018, Johnson & Johnson was accused of asbestos contamination in their talcum powder products (Getty Images)

However, in 2018, the US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson was accused of asbestos contamination in their talcum powder products. The company has since publicly denied its talcum powder products cause cancer. In recent years, the company has lost multi-million dollar lawsuits related to ovarian cancer caused by baby powder.

Even in the absence of asbestos, the powder could irritate cells of the ovary or fallopian tubes and cause inflammation, say experts. One of the effects of inflammation is damage to the DNA, which, in turn, could contribute to an increased risk of cancer.

The findings

O'Brien and his team collected data from individuals who participated in four different studies from 1982 to 2017. 

These studies quizzed the women on their talcum powder use. The team found that about 40% of these women participants used the product. Further, 2,168 women went on to develop cancer from over 250,000 women participants in the study.

The team found no significant differences between those who used the product and those who did not. Further, long use of these products did not make women any more susceptible than women who used it less frequently.

Further, the researchers add, women with no history of hysterectomy or fallopian tube-tying surgery may have a slightly higher chance of developing cancer.

Study limitations

The study is an observational experiment, which means authors cannot clearly establish the cause and effects, as it ignores other external factors that could interfere with the results of the study. In other words, whether talcum powder is driving the risk of ovarian cancer or not.

Because observational studies rely on the memory of its participants to make conclusions, misreporting could also interfere with the results.

Kevin McConway, an emeritus professor of applied statistics at Britain's Open University, told Agence France-Presse that the study is "good, competent, careful," but added that it could not definitively rule out a link between talc and cancer entirely.

The study has been published in JAMA.

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