Major Study Finds No Strong Link Between Baby Powder And Cancer

Henrietta Brewer
January 10, 2020

Women in the analysis who reported having ever applied powder to their genitals were 8% more likely to develop ovarian cancer years later than women in the studies who reported never applying powder to their genitals. The practice has been linked to ovarian cancer, with high-profile lawsuits in the United States against manufacturer Johnson & Johnson.

The lawsuits have hurt J&J shares as investors weighed the billions of dollars in potential legal risk to the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company. Women with cancer are more likely to remember or mention something that could be linked to cancer than women without, meaning these studies could have biased results.

Smaller studies examining a possible link between talcum powder and cancer have had conflicting results, although most found no link. Because the four cohort studies weren't originally focused on studying talc and ovarian cancer, researchers didn't collect detailed information on what types or brands of powder products women used.

Where did the story come from?

"Among women from 4 prospective cohorts, there was not a statistically significant association between use of powder in the genital area and ovarian cancer, but the study may have been underpowered to identify a small increase in risk", the authors said. The study was funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.

The findings were called "overall reassuring" in a piece published alongside the study.

For their study, they pooled data from 81,869 women in the Nurses' Health Study (enrollment 1976), 61,261 women from the Nurses' Health Study II (enrollment 1989), 40,647 participants from the Sister Study (enrollment 2003-2009), and 73,267 participants in the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study (enrollment 1993-1998).

What did the research involve?

For decades, some women have used talcum powder for genital hygiene to absorb odor and moisture - either through direct application or via underwear, sanitary pads, tampons or diaphragms. The women were followed up to see if they developed cancer. Nor was any significant association found when comparing frequency or length of use. There is a relationship between pelvic inflammatory disease and ovarian cancer, but more research is needed to draw any conclusion about this possible connection.

"It's not great data", admitted study author O'Brien. Nearly 14,000 American women die of the disease per year. "During a median of 11.2 years of follow-up (3.8 million person-years at risk), 2168 women developed ovarian cancer (58 cases/100,000 person-years)". As a response Johnson & Johnson issued the following statement: "This is the fourth consecutive verdict in favor of Johnson & Johnson in these cases and the eighth defense verdict this year". That difference was deemed to be not statistically significant.

The results showed that the risk of ovarian cancer for women who used talc was between 1% lower and 17% higher than those who had never used talc (hazard ratio 1.08, 95% confidence interval 0.99 to 1.17). "That doesn't mean that these differences were definitely zero, only that they were small enough so that they could plausibly be due only to random variation".

Overall, the team found that women who had ever used talc for feminine hygiene during their lifetimes had an 8% increased risk of developing ovarian cancer compared with those who were not exposed.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

Researchers found that there appeared to be a generational trend in use of powder in the genital area, with women born earlier more likely to report such use.

"They don't know if they used powder with talc or if they used cornstarch", said David Egilman, a clinical professor of family medicine at Brown University, and a paid expert for plaintiff lawyers suing talcum powder makers. Susan Gapstur of the American Cancer Society is of the opinion that a theory fits how risky the use of talc in the genital area could be: If one way is not blocked by surgery, powder particles could possibly get into the fallopian tubes and ovaries and cause irritation there, Inflammation and DNA damage could lead to cancer.

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