Johnson & Johnson Insists Baby Powder Is Safe, Despite Cancer Lawsuits

CC BY 2.0. Mike Mozart -- Bottles of Johnson's Baby Powder line the shelves of every drugstore.

Some say baby powder is carcinogenic, others say it's not. Either way, why mess around with a questionable product that is non-essential?

Baby powder looks deceptively innocent with its milky white container, pale blue lid, delicate scent, and silky soft feel. For decades it has been a bathroom cupboard staple, used on babies’ bottoms and by women to ‘freshen up’ between their legs, helping to absorb sweat. This seemingly innocuous powder, however, is now at the center of a serious controversy.

Thousands of women with ovarian cancer have filed lawsuits against baby powder manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, claiming that its main ingredient, talc, is carcinogenic and that prolonged use of baby powder caused their disease.

Johnson & Johnson has lost several of these lawsuits, and, in some cases, has been forced to make two enormous jury awards that add up to $127 million. The company plans to appeal these awards, as it continues to insist on the safety of its trademark product. It refuses to put a warning sign on products containing talc, despite the fact that its talc supplier has posted warning labels since 2006.

The company is on shaky ground, however, as a significant number of studies point to health risks associated with talc. The New York Times cites a report earlier this month that “among African-American women, genital use of powder is linked with a 44 percent increased risk for invasive epithelial ovarian cancer.”

Another study found that, “Compared with non-users, women who used talcum powder were at nearly twice the risk for having ovarian cancer, and those who used it regularly on their genitals and sanitary pads were at more than three times the relative risk.”
The New York Times also reported: “When researchers pooled the results of similar studies involving nearly 20,000 women, they found powder use was associated with a 24 percent increased risk for ovarian cancer, an uncommon disease but one that is often fatal.”

Talc is a clay mineral that is often mined close to asbestos. Despite precautions taken to separate the two, this is nearly impossible. Gillian Deacon writes in There’s Lead In Your Lipstick:

“The mineral talc tends to occur in rock mass formations that are intermingle with other magnesium silicate minerals, including the highly dangerous asbestos. Since it is virtually impossible to extract the talc rock from the asbestos during the mining process, the carcinogenic contaminant is almost invariably going to be carried over into any consumer product containing talc.”

The Environmental Working Group is not a fan either. Johnson & Johnson’s Original Baby Powder ranks 3 on its hazardous scale, which means it has ‘moderate risk’:

“Talc can be contaminated with asbestos fibers, posing risks for respiratory toxicity and cancer. Studies by the National Toxicology Panel demonstrated that cosmetic-grade talc free of asbestos is a form of magnesium silicate that also can be toxic and carcinogenic.”

All of this debate leads to the obvious question of why? Baby powder is a non-essential item. If there is any possibility of risk, avoiding it altogether would make the most sense, especially because there are safer alternatives with absorptive qualities, such as cornstarch and rice flour. It is yet another example of the cosmetics and skin care industries working hard to convince people that it is safe and acceptable to use potentially dangerous chemicals on our bodies when it should not be. It's better to be safe than sorry.