On August 11th, 2022, pharmaceutical and industrial company Johnson & Johnson announced that it would stop selling talc-based baby powder internationally in 2023. J&J will be changing the main ingredient in their baby powders from talc to cornstarch.
This announcement comes two years after J&J stopped selling talc-based baby powders in the US, due to over 38,000 (and counting) consumer safety and class action lawsuits claiming the talc products caused cancer (primarily due to contamination with asbestos). These lawsuits have resulted in $3.5 billion in verdicts and settlements, over $2 billion of which was awarded in a class action brought by 22 women who claimed to have been exposed to carcinogens from J&J baby powder.
The company maintains that their decision was sales-based rather than safety-based, claiming that “misinformation” fueled by the lawsuits falsely painted the product as dangerous. They adamantly deny that their talc products are or ever have been cancerous or contaminated. Consumer rights advocates disagree.
Does J&J Baby Powder Cause Cancer?
Johnson and Johnson have been selling Johnson’s Baby Powder since 1894 and built their “family friendly” image on the product. One of the main ingredients of J&J Baby Powder is talc, which is a mineral made up mostly of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen that is known for its moisture-absorbing, friction-reducing properties.
There are two main concerns regarding talc and cancer risk: asbestos-based concerns, and non-asbestos-based concerns.
Talc, especially as found in talcum powder (the form used in J&J’s Baby Powder) is often found in similar areas, and is mined in similar ways, as asbestos.
Asbestos is a material that was once used widely in residential and commercial construction, but which has since been discovered to be carcinogenic (and to specifically cause mesothelioma in those who inhale it).
Sometimes, asbestos gets mixed with talc when it is mined and processed. While this does not mean that asbestos is necessarily in all talc, it does make it essential for companies that use talc to do their due diligence and carefully monitor talc mining sites and operations, as well as regularly test their talc for detectable asbestos contamination.
Talc and talcum powder that contains asbestos has been determined to be carcinogenic if inhaled. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified talc with any detectable amount of asbestos as a carcinogen.
In 2018, an investigation by Reuters revealed that Johnson & Johnson’s talc products contained asbestos—and that the company was aware of this—since at least 1971 to the early 2000s. The research showed that J&J baby powders tested positive for small amounts of asbestos periodically throughout that time.
The other major concern about talc has to do with whether women who apply talcum powder regularly to the genital area are at increased risk of ovarian cancer, and whether those who work in talc mining and processing are at increased risk of lung cancer.
So far, when it comes to ovarian cancer, some lab studies on non-human animals (rats, mice, and hamsters) have shown tumor formation from exposure to asbestos-free talc, while some have not. Human studies have also had mixed findings, with some studies (including many case-controlled studies) showing a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer from regular application of baby powder to the genital region, and some finding no increased risk. The IARC has classified the use of talc-based baby powder around the genital area as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
When it comes to lung cancer, there are similarly mixed findings in lab and human, with some studies finding slight increase in cancer risk, and some finding none. These studies are complicated by the fact that talc in its natural form is more likely to contain asbestos (contributing to cancer risk), and the fact that talc miners may be exposed to other carcinogenic elements like radon when working deep underground. The IARC has determined that inhaled talc is currently “not classifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans.”
Additional studies have also suggested that talcum powder use may be linked to a slight increase in uterine cancer risk in post-menopausal women, and that miners and processors who inhale talc may be at elevated risk of non-lung-cancers, such as stomach cancer. However, these studies were not conclusive, and further research is necessary.
Should I avoid baby powder made with talc, and other talc products?
If you are concerned about the potential cancer risk that may be posed to some by talc products, you can easily avoid talc by using talc alternatives or discussing talc alternatives and risks with your doctor.
Some talc alternatives include:
- Baking soda
- Rice starch
- Tapioca starch
- Arrowroot starch
- Kaolin clay
- Oat flour