Talcum Powder and Cancer Risk

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Talcum Powder and Cancer Risk about undefined

If you’ve ever used baby powder or body powder to stay dry, absorb oils, and eliminate chafing anywhere on the body, I’ve got some important news.

This past May, multinational corporation Johnson & Johnson announced it would stop selling talcum-based baby powder in the United States and Canada, though at this writing they have no such plans for the rest of the world.

This move comes on the heels of multiple lost legal battles and billion-dollar fines, all related to claims that talcum powder causes cancer.

The allegations against talcum powder go way back. I first read about the issue in a counter-culture newspaper in New York City fifty years ago – 1970 or so. The issue won’t go away, and the manufacturers have finally given up.

In fact, you may have thought Johnson & Johnson moved on from talcum-based powders years ago, after research first discovered their health dangers.

But as it turns out, Johnson & Johnson was still selling them and people were still using them, despite the possible cancer link.

Let’s take a look at how dangerous talcum powder may be and what safer, natural alternatives are available to replace it.

What is talc? It’s a clay mineral, and as far as minerals go, it’s the softest one known to man. That’s what makes talc so useful in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. For products like baby powder, talc gets reduced down to a powdered form and then is combined with corn starch and sometimes, fragrance. Talc’s softness also makes it easy for it to be mixed with or penetrated by other minerals.

The danger is in these contaminants, not in talc itself. The makers, it seems, tried but have never been able to entirely remove unwanted minerals from the mix. And the main villain is asbestos.

Invisible, slow-acting, and absolutely deadly

For over 30 years, from 1971 to somewhere in the early 2000s, raw talc from Johnson & Johnson occasionally tested positive for traces of asbestos.

Asbestos is a trigger word to a lot of people because it brings nothing but bad news.

A silicate mineral, asbestos can break down into microscopically thin fibers which are so small they can remain airborne for days after being disturbed. Asbestos is a known carcinogen and is unsafe at any level of exposure.

If you’re unlucky enough to breathe in asbestos, the danger is that the tiny fibers will get lodged in your lungs and then work their way into your lung tissue. From there, they can trigger several serious diseases, including lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lung cavity).

You can’t tell when asbestos is in the air or when you’ve breathed it in. It doesn’t trigger coughing or sneezing, nor will it make your skin or throat itch. Even broken down, it does not look like dust. No amount is considered safe, and it’s dose-dependent: the more you’re exposed to, the more likely you are to get sick.

The exception is mesothelioma, as even the tiniest amount can trigger that cancer. In fact, asbestos workers’ families have been said to get mesothelioma from the dust brought home on the workers’ clothes. Following exposure, it takes between ten to 40 years before these diseases develop, most of which are impossible to cure.

The chilling link 

Asbestos occurs naturally underground near talc. The veins of asbestos can often be found in talc deposits, which leads to the risk of cross-contamination.

It was bad enough to have a product with traces of asbestos, but to make matters worse, the top dogs at Johnson & Johnson withheld this information from the public for years. And now they’ve been sued by roughly 12,000 women who developed ovarian cancer and allege Johnson’s Baby Powder is the source. And in July 2018, a jury agreed with them and awarded them $4.69 billion in damages. Courts, I want to add, are very poor judges of science.

The claim was that the powder caused ovarian cancer through absorption, and may also have been inhaled unintentionally during use. In most cases, women used the powder on their skin or genital areas to stay dry and prevent chafing and irritation. Men have been known to use the powder for the same reason, including under their armpits, and for years parents were told to use it in baby diapers to prevent irritation.

By the way, it’s not just baby powder that poses this risk. Talc is used in an array of products, including multiple cosmetics (lipstick, mascara, blush, foundation, eyeshadow, etc.), in chewing gum, some toys, in crayons, and in food processing and some supplements.

The research isn’t entirely convincing  

Mind you, I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but the problem I see with the claims is that the only type of cancer proven to be linked to asbestos is lung cancer among people who inhaled it – usually in manufacturing facilities, not from consumer products.

The ovarian cancers would have to arise from asbestos passing through the skin or mucous membranes into the blood and from there into the ovaries (meanwhile not causing cancer in the other organs, even though they would be exposed to the tainted blood as well).

As far as I know, this whole mechanism for asbestos causing these cancers has never been proven.

Now, I can believe that in powdering yourself you might inhale enough asbestos to be harmful. But the resulting cancer would be in the lung. Again: Why the ovaries? The argument is that many women powder the genital area and the ovaries would be near the point of absorption through the skin. But, then, wouldn’t we see uterine, kidney and bladder cancers as well?

Little enough is known about asbestos that the safe bet is probably not to use talcum powder anywhere on your body. But at the same time, I don’t think the allegations are worth near-hysteria and multibillion-dollar settlements.

Plants and ointments win 

Babies are another matter. They should absolutely be kept away from talc and all powders really, because there’s too great a risk the child will inhale or aspirate the talc, which can lead to choking, coughing, or in the worst case respiratory illness and lung damage. (This has nothing to do with asbestos. Babies just shouldn’t be around powders and today no form of baby powder is recommended for babies.)

Pediatricians now recommend using an oil-based ointment for diapering when necessary, such as Aquaphor.

If you still want to use baby powder for your grown-up needs, look for the brands made of pure cornstarch. Better yet, save yourself the branding surcharge and just buy straight cornstarch. Other safe substitutes are baking soda-based deodorant powders or commercial blends with tapioca starch or arrowroot starch (both are plant-based).

Rice starch, oat flour, and kaolin clay are also increasingly being used in commercial blends of baby powder, body powders, and deodorant powders.

Best regards,

Lee Euler,


  1. “7 Alternatives to Talcum Powder that Don’t Cause Cancer.”By Michelle Llamas for Drugwatch, 25 June 2018.
  2. “Health Effects: Asbestos.” Minnesota Department of Health.
  3. “Johnson & Johnson Stops Selling Talc-Based Baby Powder In U.S. And Canada.” By Vanessa Romo for NPR, 19 May 2020.
  4. “Talcum Powder and Cancer.” American Cancer Society; last revised 4 February 2020.
  5. “What Is Talc, Where Is It Used and Why Is Asbestos a Concern?” By Roni Caryn Rabin for The New York Times, 14 December 2018.

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