Talc is a mineral mined from the earth. Because it’s so good at absorbing moisture and easing friction, cosmetic companies often use it in baby powder, blush, eye shadow, and other products.
There have been some concerns in recent years about whether talc, especially in talcum powder, could cause cancer and whether it contains asbestos, a known toxin.
What's the Link Between Asbestos and Talc?
Asbestos is a group of minerals similar to talc that is also mined. It’s often found in the same area as talc. Sometimes, asbestos can mix with talc as it’s mined and processed.
Asbestos is known to raise the risk of cancer in people who breathe it in. That’s why it’s important for cosmetics companies to choose mining sites with care and test their talc regularly, especially for asbestos. In 1976, a large cosmetics trade group issued guidelines that said all U.S. cosmetic products should be free of detectable amounts of asbestos.
What’s the Cancer Connection?
When looking at cancer risks, it’s key to separate talc with asbestos from talc without it. Scientists say it’s clear that people who breathe in talc with asbestos are more likely to get cancer, especially if they do it regularly. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer lists it as carcinogenic (cancer-causing).
But concerns about talc without asbestos are more complex. Researchers have looked into two main questions:
Can you get lung cancer if you regularly breathe in talcum powder?
For most people, the answer is no. There is no proof that you’re more likely to get lung cancer if you use baby powder or some other form of cosmetic talcum powder that’s easy to breathe in.
Some studies show a slightly higher risk in people who are involved in talc mining and processing. But it’s not clear whether this is because of the mineral or because of other things underground known to cause lung cancer, like the radioactive gas radon.
Can women get ovarian cancer from regular use of talcum powder on their genitals?
A study of more than 250,000 women between 1976 and 2017 found no significant link between women’s use of talcum powder on their genitals and ovarian cancer. Still, scientists continue to study the topic. It may be that talc raises the risk for people in certain age groups or for particular types of ovarian cancer.
Companies that make talc-based powder have faced thousands of lawsuits about their products. Johnson & Johnson stopped selling talc-based baby powder in 2020. The company has denied any cancer link.
Scientists have not found a strong link between talc and other cancers, though research is ongoing.
One study showed a slight increase in uterine cancer in menopausal women who use talcum powder, but later studies didn’t find the same thing.
Other research has explored links between talc and stomach cancer, but there is no strong evidence, and much more study is needed.
If you’re concerned about possible cancer risks, you might want to talk to your doctor or limit your contact with talcum powder.