KT Explainer: Why some fear talc-based baby powder may be linked to cancer

Johnson & Johnson announced that it would stop selling the product globally from next year

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A container of Johnson's baby powder made by Johnson and Johnson sits on a table.- AFP
A container of Johnson's baby powder made by Johnson and Johnson sits on a table.- AFP

A Staff Reporter

Published: Fri 12 Aug 2022, 8:01 PM

Talc is a mineral comprising elements of magnesium, silicon and oxygen. Talcum powder helps absorb moisture and ensures that the skin remains dry. But there have been fears that talcum powder might cause cancer in the ovaries when women apply it to the genital area or on sanitary napkins.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified talc containing asbestos as carcinogenic to humans, while the others were “not classifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans.” Based on limited evidence from human studies of a link to ovarian cancer, it classified the perineal (genital) use of talc-based body powder as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Researchers have been studying the impact of talcum powder on those who regularly breathe it and whether it can cause lung cancer. Some studies have shown that those who work in talc mines and processing plants are at a higher risk.

There have been fears for decades that talc used in cosmetic products might contain a detectable amount of asbestos. Nearly 50 years ago, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrances Association, an American trade association representing the cosmetic and personal care products industry, issued voluntary guidelines stating that talc used in cosmetic products should be free from detectable amounts of asbestos.

Asbestos, like talc, is a group of minerals and both are often found in the same area. Asbestos raises the risk of cancer among those who breathe it. But many studies have also revealed a link between perineal talc powder – used by some women to reduce friction, odour, rashes and to keep the skin dry – and ovarian cancer.

Two years after it stopped sales of its talc-based baby powder in the US and Canada and after facing thousands of lawsuits from women who accuse it of churning out its hugely popular stuff, which contains asbestos that leads to ovarian cancer, Johnson & Johnson, the $94 billion American giant has decided to stop making and selling its powder globally from next year.

The company will abandon its talc-based baby powder and replace it with cornstarch. “We continuously evaluate and optimise our portfolio to best position the business for long-term growth,” the company said in a release on Friday. “This transition will help simplify our product offerings, deliver sustainable innovation, and meet the needs of our consumers, customers and evolving global trends.”

While other talcum powder firms have been putting warning labels on their products, J&J has refused to do so all these years.

In 2020, the company decided to stop selling its baby powder in the US and Canada because of ‘misinformation’ about its products. However, a probe by Reuters news agency two years ago claimed that for decades the multinational was aware of the presence of asbestos in its talc products.

The company has been facing problems in the US for about half a century, when researchers at leading institutions identified its cosmetic talc contained asbestos.

Over the past few years, American courts have ordered J&J to pay hefty compensation running into billions of dollars to women who blamed its talcum products for their ovarian cancers. In 2018, an American court jury accused J&J of being negligent, not warning its customers about possible health risks from the baby powder; they also slapped a $4.7 billion penalty on it.


Last year, the American supreme court rejected an appeal from the company against a judgement by a lower court, which awarded a $2.1 billion penalty on it. J&J told the court it was facing nearly 22,000 lawsuits against its talc products.

The prosecutor representing women with ovarian cancer told the supreme court that J&J “could have protected customers by switching from talc to cornstarch, as their own scientists proposed as early as 1973. But talc was cheaper and petitioners were unwilling to sacrifice profits for a safer product,” he said.

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