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Talcum powder and cancer

Talcum powderThere has been concern that using talcum powder on the genital area could increase the risk of ovarian cancer. 

Scientists are trying to see if this is the case, but for now the evidence is still uncertain.

What does the evidence say?

Cosmetic talcum powders are generally made up of a mineral compound called talc. Several studies have looked at talcum powder use and ovarian cancer and in general, the results are inconsistent. While several studies have found that talc use could increase the risk of ovarian cancer, there are many reasons to be cautious about jumping to conclusions.

Stronger studies don’t find a link

The majority of studies looking at talc and cancer relied on people remembering things they did a long time ago. These are called ‘case-control studies’, and many of them have found a link between talc and ovarian cancer.

But these studies also have important weaknesses. People may not accurately remember how much talc they used in the past, and this might skew the results.

Patients also often want to explain what caused their cancer. Women with ovarian cancer may be more likely to remember using talc than women who don’t have cancer. This will further skew the results.

Scientists can avoid these problems with studies that follow healthy women to see if those who use talc go on to develop ovarian cancer in the future. These are called ‘cohort studies’ and they are generally thought to be a better way of finding out whether something affects the risk of cancer. And cohort studies have not found a strong link between talc use and ovarian cancer.

The risk of ovarian cancer doesn’t increase when women use more talc

If something truly causes cancer, you would expect people who are exposed to more of that thing to have a higher risk. For example, the more you smoke, the higher your risk of lung cancer. But the majority of the studies have not found a similar relationship for talc use and ovarian cancer.

Using diaphragms (contraceptive caps) or condoms dusted with talc does not increase the risk of ovarian cancer

Talc from these contraceptives will be placed closer to a woman’s ovaries during sex than it would if simply applied to the genital area. The ovaries would be exposed to a higher concentration of talc. If these contraceptives do not increase the risk of ovarian cancer, it suggests that talc is not a problem.

Direct application of talcum powder to the lungs does not cause cancer

Talc is used in a medical technique called pleurodesis that can help relieve lung-cancer related symptoms, such as breathlessness. Doctors apply sterile talc directly to the lining of the lungs in this technique. And there is no evidence that this direct application of talc to the body causes cancer.

How could talcum powder cause cancer?

Before the 1970s, talcum powder was often contaminated with asbestos fibres which are known to cause cancer. But since then, all home products containing talcum powder are legally obliged to be asbestos-free.

Some scientists have suggested that talc particles could travel to the ovaries, irritate them and cause inflammation. Low-level, long-term inflammation may increase the risk of some types of cancer, such as bowel cancer, but less so to ovarian cancer. And so far, it doesn’t look like using anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

Some studies have indicated that women who use talc have lower levels of an antibody called anti-MUC1 than women who don’t use talc. And having lower levels of anti-MUC1 antibodies may increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Putting the risks into perspective

The ovarian cancer charity Ovacome have produced an excellent factsheet on talc use and ovarian cancer. They make two really important points that put any potential risks from talc into perspective:

  • Studies suggest that talc use may increase the risk of ovarian cancer by around a third. This is a relatively small increase in risk and ovarian cancer is a rare disease. Increasing a small risk by a third still gives a small risk.
  • There are millions of women in the UK, and many will use talcum powder. But only a very small number will develop ovarian cancer. So even if talc did increase the risk, only very few women who use talc will actually develop ovarian cancer.

What else affects the risk of ovarian cancer? 

Many things can affect the risk of ovarian cancer and even if talc plays a role, it will only be a very small one.

The following things increase the risk of ovarian cancer:

  • Age – as a woman gets older, her risk of developing ovarian cancer increases
  • Family history – women who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer might be at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer
  • Overweight – being very overweight may increase the risk
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) – using HRT increases the risk, but only while women are taking it

And the following things reduce the risk:

  • Having children – the more children a woman has, the lower her risk of developing ovarian cancer
  • Taking the pill – oral contraceptives can halve the risk of ovarian cancer and the benefits last for many years after women stop taking them
  • Breastfeeding – women who breastfeed their children have a lower risk

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Updated: 31 August 2010