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Talcum Powder and ovarian cancer: What’s the story?

07 January 2020

Talcum powder

A new study published in the medical journal JAMA has found no statistically significant relationship between talc use and the development of ovarian cancer. The study is the largest ever analysis addressing the link between using talc for feminine hygiene and development of ovarian cancer. 

Over the last three years, a number of high-profile American law-suits have been made against talcum powder manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, claiming talc use caused women to develop ovarian cancer. However, so far evidence has been inconclusive. 

When looking at research it is important to look at how many people were involved, what the conditions of the trial were, over what period of time it was conducted and who conducted the research e.g. is there any conflict of interest. 

In short, it can be complicated. Professor Iain McNeish, Director of the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre at Imperial College London, helps us understand the science.

Professor McNeish said: “This is a very well-conducted study by a highly respected group of researchers. Proving causation links of this type is incredibly difficult and the authors are very careful to highlight the potential limitations of their study. However, this research is robust, analysing data from 250,000 women followed for an average of over 11 years, and has concluded there is no statistically significant relationship between talc use and the development of ovarian cancer.”

I heard about a study that proved there was a link?

There have been several studies that have looked at the possible link between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer. Some of the studies appear to show a modest increase in ovarian cancer risk in women who used talcum powder on their genitals, with one set of studies presented in 2003 showing a 33% increased risk in ovarian cancer in women who used the product in this way.

However, the reliability of these studies is questionable because they are all based on historical use of the product. This means the studies were done by taking two groups of women – one group who had ovarian cancer and one group who did not – and asking them about their previous talcum powder use. This retrospective approach relies very heavily on women remembering if they ever used talcum powder on their genitals and if so, how much they used, often needing to recall back many years. This could impact on the accuracy of the results the studies produced.

It is also important to bear in mind that women who have ovarian cancer may also be more likely to remember something like talcum powder use if they are aware of a potential link between the product and their disease. Whereas the participants who did not have ovarian cancer may not necessarily remember either way.

Our recommendation

There are no health or cleanliness benefits to using the product in this area, so we don’t recommend that it is used in this way. If you have been using talcum powder then do not panic. Robust research has found no statistical link between ovarian cancer and the use of talc for feminine hygiene.

What are the current known risk factors for ovarian cancer? 

There are a number of things that we know can affect a woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer. These include family history and genetics, age, lifestyle and menstrual history. Click here to understand more about these risk factors. 

We know that 15-20% of ovarian cancers are due to family history or a genetic mutation. To find out if your family history of cancer puts you at greater risk of getting cancer yourself, or of a carrying a risk increasing genetic mutation we have produced a Hereditary Cancer Risk Tool. This simple tool that assesses your risk of having inherited a genetic mutation that could increase your risk of developing certain cancers. It's suitable for both men and women.