Talcum powder: cancer causing or safe?

A favorite scent for many, the smell of baby powder or talcum powder was a common household smell for millions, especially in the 1970s and ‘80s when the dangers of talcum powder was less known.

Today, however, while the smell is still beloved for many, the dangers of using certain types of talcum powder has come front-and-center for the health conscious. In particular, the ability for some types of talcum powder to actually cause cancer.

What are talcum powder ingredients?

Talcum is a pulverized talc, a mineral that consists mostly of magnesium, silicone and oxygen, that has been used since the late 1800s to prevent skin irritations. It became widely used for its ability to absorb moisture and became famously branded in 1893 when Johnson’s Baby Powder was introduced.

Since then, it has been used for everything from diaper rashes to adult body powder and medicated foot powder. Talcum is also widely used in cosmetics and has many industrial uses including ceramics, plastics, paper, roofing, flooring and rubber.

Is talcum powder dangerous?

Due to the geographical location of talcum, naturally occurring amounts of asbestos are often found in the final product of talcum powders, and since asbestos is a mineral with known carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects, many people have attributed the use of talcum powder to cancer.

Geologically, talc and asbestos can naturally form alongside each other, but not every talc deposit is contaminated with asbestos. According to Asbestos.com, whether a particular talc product contains asbestos or not has to do with its geologic source and thus, any products made with that talc will likely be contaminated with asbestos.

In 2016, a study title The Association Between Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer was published in the US Library of Medicine that showed women who used talcum powder on their genitals had an increased chance of developing cancer.

In 2018, Johnson and Johnson was one of two companies found guilty of selling products that contained asbestos, one of which included its famous baby powder.

What is being done?

The controversy arises over which industrial talc products and talcum powder brands were contaminated with asbestos. Now, the issue lies in to trying to determine who is liable when people develop asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma.

According to the American Cancer Society, in 1976, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrances Association (CTFA) issued voluntary guidelines stating that all talc used in cosmetic products in the United States should be free from detectable amounts of asbestos according to their standards.

On September 6, 2019, the FDA updated the Safety Alert warning for consumers not to use certain cosmetic products that tested positive for asbestos.

Talcum alternatives

Due to the health concerns of traditional talcum, numerous talcum-free options have hit the shelves, offering consumers better choices to sooth their skin irritations.

If you’re in the market, look for cornstarch powders instead of talcum. You can also search for organic or natural products that use arrowroot, tapioca or baking soda. If you prefer the super-natural, give oat or chickpea flour a try. It has both oil and moisture absorbent qualities.