Many women grew up sprinkling Johnson’s Baby Powder in their underwear. They did so at the recommendation of their mothers and grandmothers. The logic was that it kept you “fresh and clean” in much the same way mothers used to sprinkle the powder in the diapers of their little ones.
But continued claims over the past 30 years link this iconic Johnson & Johnson product to cancer. I first read about the possible connection when I was in college, around 1970. Now there’s a fresh outcry, and here’s why…
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$307 million in lawsuits and counting
Talc came back into the spotlight last May when 62-year-old Lois Slemp of Wise, Virginia won a $110.5 million lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. Ms. Slemp was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012 and believed her diagnosis stemmed from using the company’s talcum-based products for more than 40 years.
She’s not the first. Last year, three other jury trials based on the same charge came to the same conclusion, and the plaintiffs were awarded $72 million, $701 million, and $55 million. Of course, Johnson & Johnson continues to state the product is safe. The company is appealing all four verdicts.
Roughly 21,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. It’s nowhere near as common as, say, breast, lung, or colon cancer – but it’s common enough to make it worth seeking out the causes and avoiding them.
Certain genetic causes of ovarian cancer are clear, but in cases where those genetic factors aren’t present, doctors aren’t sure why this cancer develops. A diagnosis of ovarian cancer is usually terminal because it’s often found too late for treatment to make a difference.
Johnson & Johnson claims innocence because their talc-based baby powder is meant to be applied topically. But some researchers argue that powder in a woman’s underwear could travel up the vagina and to the ovaries, thus prompting the growth of cancer.
A hotly contested cancer debate with major players
Talc is a naturally-occurring mineral consisting mostly of the elements magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. It’s found not only in baby powders but also in cosmetic and personal care products and is an effective medium for absorbing moisture, reducing friction, and keeping rashes at bay.
That’s why parents used to use it in their babies’ diapers, until doctors began discouraging it. But many adults, mostly women, use it or have used it around their genitals or rectum to prevent chafing, sweating, or odor.
Part of the talc debate is steeped in fear of asbestos. According to the American Cancer Society, talc in its natural form can contain asbestos. Inhaling asbestos is a known cause of cancer in and around the lungs.
But the American Cancer Society also states that talcum products in the United States have been free of asbestos since the 1970s. Even the Food and Drug Administration has chimed into the conversation, stating it hasn’t found asbestos in the talc products it checked.
That leaves us with asbestos-free talc, which remains in wide use. And the evidence leaves a lot of question marks. For example, there have been scientific studies that show talc causes tumors, while other scientific studies have shown it does not. The same mixed results can be observed in studies that have attempted to link talc with ovarian cancer.
On the other hand, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (also called the IARC, which is a branch of the World Health Organization), states use of talc-based products on genitals is “possibly carcinogenic.”
But if you want to err on the side of caution, there’s plenty of evidence to form a connection between talc and cancer. A December study from the journal Epidemiology showed a one-third higher risk of ovarian cancer for women who routinely applied talc-based powder to their genitals, sanitary napkins, tampons, or underwear.
And then a 2015 case-controlled study in Los Angeles showed 44% of African-American women use talc as a “feminine hygiene product” compared to 30% of white women and 29% of Hispanic women. This is worth noting, because a 1990 memorandum from Johnson & Johnson, which was made public in one of their lawsuits, outlined a plan to boost flagging sales of the powder by targeting black and Hispanic women.
And now, a new study out of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville shows African-American women who regularly use the powder are at greater risk than their peers who don’t use it. Interestingly, principal investigator Joellen Schildkraut found regular use of the powder was associated with ovarian cancer regardless of where the women used it.
In the interest of public health, many of the researchers and epidemiologists involved in these studies advocate warning labels against the use of genital talcum powder. The group includes Dr. Daniel Cramer, head of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Epidemiology Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who was the first to report a link between genital talc and ovarian cancer back in 1982.
Bottom line: It’s an avoidable risk
The thing about cancer is that it’s rarely caused by one thing. It could be triggered by a certain chemical or exposure to something toxic, but several other factors usually come into play, such as the state of your immune system, your blood sugar, your weight, and more.
On the other hand, the link between talc and ovarian cancer keeps surfacing, and there are enough studies on this to raise more than a few red flags, not to mention the lawsuits. I don’t have much faith in the ability of juries to sort out scientific questions, but J&J’s consistent failure to make its case in court is a cause for concern.
The company is facing close to 1,000 similar lawsuits from women who claim the company knew about the potential link between talc and ovarian cancer but didn’t warn consumers.
Because talc-based powders are an avoidable risk for ovarian cancer, I recommend switching to natural alternatives. In fact, in the 1970s, Johnson & Johnson actually began selling cornstarch-based baby powder alongside its talc-based products as an alternative. The American Cancer Society said in 1999 that cornstarch products were a good alternative.
If you’d like to get away from that brand completely, there are plenty of natural product companies that sell “dusting powder” – Burt’s Bees is one of them. Or, you can find several do-it-yourself recipes on the internet that use bases like arrowroot powder or rice starch.
In our last issue we talked about a famous cancer cure that the medical establishment suppressed with a ferocious campaign of regulatory harassment and defamation. This is one of the most famous natural cancer treatments, worth knowing about. If you missed the article, it’s running again just below.