Expert Q&A: Can Baby Powder Lead to Ovarian Cancer?

Interviewer: Kathleen Doheny; Interviewee: Shelley Tworoger, PhD


August 25, 2017

A Los Angeles jury has awarded $417 million to a 63-year-old woman who claims her ovarian cancer was caused by her decades-long habit of using Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder for feminine hygiene.

Eva Echeverria of Los Angeles said she used the talcum powder regularly from the age of 11 until 2016, when she read an article linking it to ovarian cancer.

Previous lawsuits have produced mixed verdicts, and Johnson & Johnson will appeal this one, a spokesperson says. The company says scientific studies have shown no direct correlation between its product and ovarian cancer.

The American Cancer Society says the evidence from studies is not clear but that "there is some suggestion of a possible increase in ovarian cancer risk."

Legalities aside, women may wonder: Are they boosting ovarian cancer risk if they use talcum powder regularly for feminine hygiene?

WebMD asked Shelley Tworoger, PhD, an epidemiologist and senior member at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, to sort out what's known about talcum powder and ovarian cancer. She has studied ovarian cancer.

WebMD: Does this latest news prove that baby powder/talcum powder causes ovarian cancer?

Dr Tworoger: I can't comment on whether the verdict does prove the link. But there is scientific literature to support that there is an association between the two. Multiple studies have looked at the relationship between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer risk. The largest has over 8500 women who had ovarian cancer and about 10,000 who didn't. That study found that women who use talcum were about 24% more likely to have ovarian cancer than those who did not.

WebMD: Are there other studies on the topic?

Dr Tworoger: There have been other case-control studies [comparing those with cancer and healthy people] that have found similar results. But in those studies, women were asked about talcum use after diagnosis, which can influence their memory. There have been three prospective studies asking about talcum powder use before their diagnosis. Those did not see a strong association, but they had relatively few cases.

WebMD: So, bottom line?

Dr Tworoger: These studies don't prove causality, just an association. Relatively little is known about how talcum powder may influence the biology of ovarian cancer. [Some] data suggest that talcum use could affect the immune system, and talcum particles have been found in the lymph nodes of ovarian cancer patients. It does suggest that talcum powder particles can actually ascend the genital tract and reach the area of the ovaries. In conclusion, while we can't definitely conclude that talcum powder causes ovarian cancer, there is evidence that it may.

Cancer has multiple causes, and usually cancer isn't caused by one thing. There are many other factors associated with ovarian cancer. Oral contraceptive use reduces risk. Having a family history of ovarian cancer is associated with double the risk, much stronger than what we see from talcum powder.

WebMD: Should women stop using talcum powder?

Dr Tworoger: Using talcum powder is a personal choice. However, if it can be avoided, that may be the safest route.

WebMD: What is the benefit of using it, if any?

Dr Tworoger: To my knowledge, there is no known health benefit to using talcum powder. There may be a benefit of feeling like you have better hygiene.

WebMD: What about using baby powder on babies? Any risk?

Dr Tworoger: To my knowledge, there are no extensive studies. In adult women, there have been studies about the use of talcum powder on other body areas, such as the armpits. That has not been associated with the risk for ovarian cancer. (Some baby powder has cornstarch, not talcum powder.)

WebMD: What about using other products for feminine/genital hygiene?

Dr Tworoger: It's not always clear by the labeling on these products whether they have talcum powder or not. I would encourage better labeling on these products so that women can make more informed choices.

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