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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. However, even if there is a risk it is likely to be fairly small.

What does the evidence say?

Cosmetic body and talcum powders often contain a mineral compound called talc. Several studies have looked at talcum powder use and ovarian cancer. While on the whole studies have seen a modest increase in the risk of ovarian cancer in women who use talc on their genitals, the evidence isn't completely clear. So we can't be sure whether or not talc itself could cause ovarian cancer.

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 women with ovarian cancer may be more likely to remember using talc than women who don't have cancer. This might 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. So far there has only been one cohort study looking at talc and ovarian cancer - and it didn't find a link with ovarian cancers overall.

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. So the ovaries would be exposed to a higher concentration of talc. But studies haven't found an increased risk of ovarian cancer in woman who used talc on diaphragms.

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 symptoms of some lung problems. 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. But so far, it doesn’t look like using anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. And the evidence around whether talc could travel in this way is weak.

Putting any risk into perspective

The ovarian cancer charity Ovacome have produced an excellent factsheet. They make a really important point that puts any potential risks from talc into perspective:

The evidence for a link is weak, but even if talc does increase the risk of ovarian cancer studies suggest it would be by around a third. This is a modest increase in risk and ovarian cancer is a relatively rare disease. Increasing a small risk by a third still gives a small risk.

Ovarian cancer risk is affected by many things 

As with most cancers, the risk of ovarian cancer increases with age. And women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer may also be more likely to develop ovarian cancer. If you think you might have a family history of cancer, it's a good idea to talk to your GP.

Things to do with childbearing and hormones are believed to play a role in ovarian cancer. Risk of ovarian cancer is lower the more children a woman has. And taking hormonal medications, such as the contraceptive Pill or Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), can also affect the risk.

Smoking also affects the risk of ovarian cancer and, unlike age or family history, it is something we can control. A Cancer Research UK study has estimated that each year around 200 UK cases of ovarian cancer could be prevented by not smoking. For help in quitting, visit the NHS Smokefree website or speak to your doctor or pharmacist.

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 9 January 2015