Is talcum powder safe?

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What is talcum powder?

Talcum powder is made from talc, a naturally occurring mineral in rock deposits. It is crushed, dried, and milled into a fine, soft powder, that is used to absorb moisture and prevent irritation. It was historically used to prevent rashes in infants and was typically a part of many women’s daily feminine hygiene routine. It's still a common ingredient in deodorant, paint, food additives, and some cosmetic products.

Is talcum powder safe?

The safety of talcum powder is still a contested issue.

While manufacturers and suppliers reassure it is safe in a refined state, some studies have shown that certain talc-based products contained the cancer-causing mineral asbestos. A number of additional studies have also linked the use of talcum powder to ovarian and lung cancer.

While talc generally can be safe (as supported by over 40 years of studies by medical experts), if ingested, talc can still cause issues like chest pain, breathing difficulties, wheezing, and coughing. Talc should be kept away from children and infants, who are particularly susceptible to its effects. 

In 2020, a study found that 14% of talc-containing makeup products contained asbestos. Even though it hasn't been linked to the development of any cancers, it can still cause breathing issues and adverse effects if inhaled. Manufacturers using talc for cosmetic products claim that milling the powder removes any impurities, but there is no government oversight to confirm how safe it really is. 

Despite what individual studies may indicate, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies talc that contains asbestos as carcinogenic, and talc-based baby powders as ‘possibly carcinogenic’. As an extra precaution, we would advise against using any baby powder or cosmetics that contain talcum powder. 

The Johnson & Johnson lawsuit

In the early 1970s, a possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer was discovered. After 40 years of researching the issue, Harvard’s Dr Daniel Cramer suggested in a 2016 study that women who regularly use talc around their genital region boost their risk of ovarian cancer by 33 per cent. A study conducted by Dr Roberta Ness also found that talc boosts a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer by 30 per cent. 

Concern around the safety of talcum powder comes after a string of lawsuits faced by pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson. Thousands of women have filed lawsuits against the corporation (and other baby powder brands) on claims that using talc as part of their feminine hygiene routine has caused them to develop ovarian cancer. 

In 2022, Johnson and Johnson announced that their talcum-based baby powder would be discontinued globally. In light of the lawsuits, a handful of baby powder companies have also put disclaimers on their products letting customers know that continued use of the powder around the genital region is discouraged. 

Alternatives to talcum powder

There is sizeable evidence to suggest that talcum powder is unsafe. Even if the powder itself does not cause cancer, it can still cause breathing issues if ingested. It's always better to err on the side of caution, so we’d recommend finding a replacement. Products containing cornstarch, baking soda, arrowroot powder, or tapioca starch are all great alternatives to talc.

For baby powder, we'd recommend searching for one that uses any of the above replacements or making your own. 

Final word

Evidence has shown that talcum powder can be unsafe, especially if it's ingested or used around the genital region. We'd advise against using any talcum-based products, even if there are no reports of adverse reactions.

Hannah Geremia
Written by
Hannah Geremia
Hannah has had over six years of experience in researching, writing, and editing quality content. She loves gaming, dancing, and animals, and can usually be found under a weighted blanket with a cup of coffee and a book.

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