Analysis Finds Link Between Talc Powders, Ovarian Cancer

April 11, 2000 (Atlanta) -- For many women, a dusting of powder helps freshen the vaginal area. But a new study suggests that women should read the labels of so-called "talcum" feminine and bath powders closely. Cornstarch-based products may be better choices.

The study shows that powders can migrate from the vaginal area to the ovaries, and -- if the powder contains talc -- could slightly increase a woman's risk of ovarian cancer.

Slightly is the key word here. "Exposure to talc is unlikely to be a primary factor in most cases of ovarian cancer," writes John Whysner, MD, PhD, a researcher with the American Health Foundation in Valhalla, N.Y. He says there is not enough information to clearly say whether there is a causal relationship. Whysner reviewed over 50 papers on the subject, written over the past 30 years, for the analysis published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Talc is a mineral compound that is similar to asbestos; the two minerals are often found together in geological formations. In the past, some talc powders have been found to contain asbestos, but quality assurance programs have now minimized this contamination. The modest association between ovarian cancer and talc exposure found in some studies has been attributed to asbestos contamination, Whysner says.

Cornstarch, in comparison, is a food substance found in the corn kernel. Because of cornstarch's chemical nature, it is biologically implausible for it to cause cancer, he adds.

Whysner's review includes studies of more than 2,000 women with ovarian cancer who had used talc- and/or cornstarch-based products in the vaginal area. Some used the powder to dust sanitary napkins as well; some stored diaphragms or condoms in the powder.

Whether these powders can move through the fallopian tubes to the ovaries, where they might play a role in causing ovarian tumors, has been debated. In some studies, tubal ligation (having the tubes "tied") was linked with a decrease in the risk of ovarian cancer, Whysner writes.

"The risk for ovarian cancer was highest among women who used talc and had not undergone surgical sterilization," he says. He cites many studies in which the migration of particles through the fallopian tubes has been demonstrated. Both talc and asbestos have been found in human ovarian tissue.

Whysner writes that most studies have found that an increased risk for ovarian cancer is associated with exposure to talc power. "None [has] found an increased risk associated with ... cornstarch powders," he says.

Charles J. Dunton, MD, a professor of gynecology and oncology at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, tells WebMD, "There's not a cause for women to get overly upset if they've used talc in the past. The association is not that strong, and besides, it's all statistics, and there might be ... factors that cause the statistics to be inaccurate."

Also, because asbestos used to be found in talc powders, some of the early findings may be distorting the current picture, Dunton says. "Most of the baby powders now contain cornstarch rather than talc, but there are products like Shower-to-Shower that contain a lot of talc. ... Although the risk is very minimal, I would avoid talc in the [vaginal] area. That's the take-home message."

Ira Horowitz, MD, PhD, professor and vice chairman of gynecology/obstetrics and director of gynecologic oncology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, tells WebMD, "What I tell my patients is that there looks like there might be a causal relationship between talc and ovarian cancer ... [but] there's a lot we don't know."

  • A new study has shown that dusting the vaginal area with powders containing talc may slightly increase a woman's risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Talc is a mineral compound similar to asbestos, and the two are often found together in geological formations, which might explain the increased cancer risk.
  • Women should opt for cornstarch over talc powders. But there's no need to panic, as the increased risk of cancer is small, asbestos contamination is better controlled today than in the past, and the information on any association between talc and cancer is not complete.