Does baby powder cause cancer? The question may seem laughable. After all, it’s been used for over a hundred years on helpless infants — and they’re not all contracting cancer. Sure, that inexpensive, seemingly harmless white stuff can instantly trigger an association with childhood whenever you smell it. But research shows that women using baby powder long-term can develop cancer… and it may also put babies at risk.
A Brief History of Baby Powder
Baby powder was one of the first products drug powerhouse Johnson & Johnson sold more than 100 years ago. Originally, it was developed because customers complained that plasters (adhesives infused with pain relievers like mustard seed, capsicum, quinine, and opium) irritated their skin. J&J initially marketed talcum powder to soothe customers’ rashes, and in 1894, the company introduced Johnson’s® Baby Powder. Made from 99.8% talc, the powder came in a metal tin labeled for “toilet and nursery” use.
Since then, Johnson’s Baby Powder became an iconic household item sold in several different varieties. Now you can purchase original or scented baby powders, including products infused with aloe vera or other soothing ingredients. There’s also a version called Shower to Shower marketed specifically to women that’s described as a “fresh, absorbent body powder.” Talcum powder must be safe if it’s okay for babies, right? Not necessarily. Even if no studies link it to cancer in infants, pediatricians say it can cause other serious issues.
Talcum Powder vs. Cornstarch
For years, pediatricians have recommended using cornstarch-based baby powders on little ones’ bottoms instead of talc-based versions. According to pediatrician Dr. Jo Ann Rohyans, “Baby powder may smell and feel good, but I don’t recommend it — and the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends against it. Powder can cause breathing problems and serious lung damage when inhaled, and it’s not always easy to keep the powder out of the air where your baby might breathe it.” Dr. Rohyans says there’s no evidence baby powder prevents or treats diaper rash, despite J&J’s marketing campaigns.
And fellow pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu agrees: “Pediatricians no longer recommend talc-based baby powders because they’re dangerous when inhaled.” Dr. Shu says that if you must use talcum powder on your child, do so only sparingly and infrequently. Inhaled talc can dry out an infant’s mucous membranes, which affects baby’s breathing and can cause serious lung damage. Dr. Andrew Weil says, “Some babies have developed pneumonia and some have died as a result of respiratory failure from inhaling the powder. Cornstarch isn’t ideal either, but its particles are larger and are not as easily inhaled as talc.”
But talcum powder poses more than just inhalation risks to infants. Published medical studies going back to the 1970s show increased cancer risks from continued talcum powder use in adult women. Despite this evidence, Johnson & Johnson steadfastly refuses to warn consumers about the dangers of using talc-based products. Unfortunately, not knowing this information may lead to thousands of otherwise preventable deaths.
Talcum Powder and Cancer
In 1971, researchers in a Wales laboratory first discovered the link between cancer and talcum powder. After dissecting 13 cancerous ovarian tumors, researchers found talc particles embedded within 10 of them. Subsequent medical studies confirmed talc crystals can travel up the genitourinary tract and into the peritoneal cavity where ovaries reside. Another 1982 study headed by Dr. Daniel Cramer of Harvard compared 215 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer against a healthy control group. The results were astonishing: women who used talcum powder had nearly twice the risk of developing ovarian cancer than the control group of non-users did. Worse, women who regularly sprinkled talc-based powder on their genitals and sanitary pads faced more than three times increased risk.
Further studies looked for a causal link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder use, most of which echoed Dr. Cramer’s earlier research. In 2013, the Australian Ovarian Cancer Study Group did a pooled study analysis that included 8,525 cases and 9,859 controls. Among nearly 20,000 women, the meta-study found talcum powder use associated with a 24% increased risk for developing ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer, though relatively uncommon, is often fatal. According to the research, for every 5-6 women who develop cancer after using talcum powder, one may be the direct result of talc use over long periods of time.
Johnson & Johnson’s Failure to Warn Consumers
Although studies clearly link talcum powder use and cancer, many consumers remain unaware — despite J&J halting product sales permanently in May 2020. In 1994 and 2008, the Cancer Prevention Coalition petitioned the FDA to include cancer warnings on talcum powder labels. A 1993 statement from J. Mande, Acting Associate Commissioner for Legislative Affairs of the Department of Health and Human Services, said: “We are aware that there have been reports in the medical literature between frequent direct female perineal talc dusting over a protracted period of years, and an incremental increase in the statistical odds of subsequent development of certain ovarian cancers… (However) at the present time, the FDA is not considering to ban, restrict or require a warning statement on the label of talc containing products.”
It seems clear both the FDA and Johnson & Johnson knew for decades about the link between cancer and talcum powder use. A press release accompanying the petition included this J&J admission from a 1992 New York Times article: “frequent genital dusting with talc increases risks of ovarian cancer by three-fold.”
How Baby Powder Cancer Victims Can Get Justice and Compensation
Because Johnson & Johnson repeatedly failed to warn consumers about the dangers of using talcum powder near the peritoneal cavity, many women developed ovarian or cervical cancer. As a result, thousands of lawsuits are now pending. If you or a loved one developed cancer after regular talcum powder use for several years, you may qualify for compensation. Complete your free case review form now to see if your claim may qualify.
Related: J&J Investor Sues Over Talcum Powder Asbestos Testing Scandal
Mandy Voisin is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of Girls of the Ocean and Star of Deliverance. As an accomplished content marketing consultant, mom of four and doctor's wife, Mandy has written hundreds of articles about dangerous drugs and medical devices, medical issues that impact disabled Americans, veterans' healthcare and workers' compensation issues since 2016.