Digging Deeper: The Connection Between Talcum Powder and Ovarian Cancer

Tracy Townsend and Dr David Cohn

The link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer has been in the news a lot lately, leading to concern and some confusion among women who use the popular product on a regular basis.

Should I stop using talc in my genital area?

Is it dangerous and will it lead to ovarian cancer?

The answer is not simple, said David Cohn, MD, Director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, a good time to examine the talc issue, along with ways women can reduce their risk of ovarian cancer and other gynecologic cancers.

The association between ovarian cancer and using talc in the genital area dates back 50 or more years, Dr. Cohn said, adding that it began “when they found talc particles in the ovaries of autopsy specimens and began to think, maybe this is an issue.”

The belief was that talc particles sprinkled in a woman’s underwear or pads to help with drying or reduce odors could get into the vagina, travel through uterus and into the abdominal cavity, where the ovaries and tubes are situated. “The thought was this might lead to some inflammation, and inflammation leads to a reaction from the body that may lead to cancer,” Dr. Cohn said.

Subsequent research and population science data have led to mixed results on the link between talc and ovarian cancer.

“There seems to be, at the most, a very weak association,” Dr. Cohn said. “Some studies show an increased risk and some show that it does not increase the risk.”

The highest estimate indicates a 20-percent increase in the risk of getting ovarian cancer for women who use talc on a regular basis. It is important to remember that ovarian cancer is rare, Dr. Cohn says: A woman’s lifetime risk of getting the disease is 1.5 percent (compared to, for example, her having a 12 percent risk of getting breast cancer).

This translates to the equivalent of four additional cases of ovarian cancer for every 10,000 women who may not have gotten it if they weren’t exposed to talc, Dr. Cohn said.

While this is a small increase, “the impact is enormous if you’re one of the four,” Dr. Cohn said.

And this is why he recommends that women don’t use talc products in their genital area. Fortunately, there is an alternative: corn starch.

“There is no risk associated with corn starch, compared to a small risk associated with talc,” Dr. Cohn said. “Typically baby powders today have cornstarch rather than talcum powder, so in essence, (women) probably are already doing the things that they can to avoid that potential small increased risk.”

For more information on the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer, watch this video.

To learn more about the symptoms of gynecologic cancers and how to prevent them, check out this blog.