Is talc safe?

February 23, 2001

Is talc safe?


Science has put talcum powder under a microscope to determine if it can cause ovarian cancer.


Approximately 40 percent of women involved in disease studies apply powder to their external vaginal - or perineal - region, according to an article in the March 2000 edition of American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Powders often are used to curb feminine odor and wetness. They may be applied directly to the external genitalia, dusted on condoms or diaphragms before use, or may be sprinkled on sanitary napkins, according to the article.

Debate continues in the medical community about whether talc particles can reach the ovaries through the fallopian tubes and whether they can cause ovarian cancer, according to the article. Some epidemiologic - disease - studies have shown an association between perineal exposure to talc powders and ovarian cancer, the article says.


"Epidemiology studies sometimes are good but sometimes they're their own worst enemy," says Stephen C. Pennisi, a board-certified toxicologist in White Plains, N.Y.

Pennisi says such studies are not always precise, sometimes relying on participants to recall past habits.

Scientifically speaking, if talc is absorbed into the body, it may be viewed as a foreign substance that the body would try to trap by forming fibrous masses around it, which could lead to cancer, says Pennisi, adviser to Vagisil Women's Health Center and vice president of Combe Inc., maker of Vagisil products.

Despite the findings of some studies, the article says a definite cause-and-effect relationship has not been proven.

"Attempts at correlating tissue malignancy with talc particle burden have been unsuccessful," the article says. "No correlation among history of perineal talc use, ovarian talc particle burden and tissue malignancy has been demonstrated."

Dr. Sohael Raschid, an OB/GYN with Orndorf, Raschid & Associates in Chambersburg, Pa., says since no ovarian cancer link has formally been made with talcum products, he is reassured that it's OK to use.

"I think this is a tempest in a teapot," Raschid said.

Pennisi says talc has been scrutinized before.

"It has some baggage associated with it," he says.

In the 1950s, it was discovered that some talc products contained asbestos, the result of a talc-mining process, Pennisi says. Asbestos may cause ovarian cancer, according to the report in American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

After the discovery was made, "The cosmetics industry cleaned up their act," Pennisi says, making sure there was no asbestos in talc products.

The article also says no link between powders containing cornstarch and ovarian cancer has been made.

"All available data indicate that whereas associations between talc exposure and ovarian cancer have suggested but not proved a casual relationship, the application of perineal powder containing cornstarch exclusively is not predicted to be a risk factor for ovarian cancer," the article says.

Cornstarch is made from corn, which the body knows how to process, Pennisi says.

Raschid says he doesn't tout cornstarch powders over talc unless women are sensitive to the scents used in some talcum powders. If that is the case, they can get rashes after applying such products to their perineal region.

Pennisi says if women are remotely worried about using talc, even though it has not been proven to cause ovarian cancer, they should stay away from it.

"Talc is safe, but if you're really that concerned, don't use it," Pennisi says.

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