Does Baby Powder Cause Cancer?

Johnson and Johnson is facing 5000 lawsuits related to baby powder’s relationship to cancer, but thus far, its plaintiffs aren’t making much progress. A judge overturned a $417 million verdict for lack of evidence.

Baby powder is made of a clay containing cornstarch, magnesium, and silicone—minerals that are part of a perfectly benign western diet. It contains talc. Concerns about its cancer-related effects are largely rooted in the fact that talc contained asbestos, a known carcinogen, in the 1970s.

The Research on Baby Powder and Cancer

Asbestos-free powders have been the subject of a number of clinical trials. Some studies have revealed that there may be a slight link between talc and ovarian cancer, but cancer risk increased by a meager 0.004% in those participants. With no relationship between dose and response, the researchers concluded that talc had no causative effects.  As yet, no studies have managed to find a statistically significant link.

The American Cancer Society advises concerned consumers to avoid talc-based powders, not because they have been proven to cause cancer, but because there isn’t strong proof, and further research is warranted.

Courts should interpret the best evidence available to date, but juries often sympathize more with the underdog than large corporations and are highly responsive to emotive reasoning.

Litigation is increasingly being levied against the healthcare industry, and up to a third of jurors distrust insurers, medical device companies, and doctors. Corporate behemoths don’t attract much more faith. Only 28% of American adults qualify as scientifically literate, which doesn’t help the situation in cases where the difference between “trend” and “evidence” are important.

Ovarian cancer has a number of risk factors, including genetics, use of estrogen as a hormone replacement therapy, and the use of IUDs. It seems unlikely that talc uncontaminated by asbestos will be added to the list.