Inside Look: The Talc-Cancer Connection

On Friday, August 2, a Kentucky state court jury returned a verdict in favor of Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive in the state’s first trial over allegations of cancer risks associated with talc products.

It was a turn of events for Johnson & Johnson which had suffered three previous losses on the same question in California and New Jersey, where there are 14,000 pending trials waiting to be heard in a federal MDL.

The plaintiff, Donna Hayes, had argued that her mesothelioma came from persistent exposure to asbestos in Johnson’s Baby Powder and Colgate-Palmolive’s Cashmere Bouquet. J&J’s attorneys successfully argued that Hayes’ cancer was due to exposure to asbestos in garages where her husband worked as a mechanic.

Whether mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung, or ovarian cancer linked to talc use, the litigation being brought in courts around the country revolves around the central question – do cosmetic talcum powders – Johnson’s Baby Powder, Shower to Shower, and Cashmere Bouquet – contain asbestos, a known carcinogen?

J&J insists there is no asbestos in its talcum powders. The studies being presented at court are based on outdated science, the healthcare giant argues, and talc is not labeled a carcinogen.

As is often the case, these trials must show there was a viable alternative to talcum powder which is cornstarch, an organic carbohydrate quickly broken down by the body.

What does the evidence show?

Evidence presented in the case of Colgate-Palmolive showed the company should have known about the possibility of asbestos in its products. Talc was used from three mines known to be contaminated since the 1940s.

Talc, also known as magnesium trisilicate, is an inorganic mineral and is generally mined from the earth in the same proximity as asbestos, another naturally occurring silicate mineral. 

Testing by the company confirmed asbestos but consumers and the FDA were never informed. 

Plaintiff lawyers have presented a 1982 study that linked talc use on genitals with a 92 percent increased risk for ovarian cancer.

A 1999 study concludes that “avoidance of talc in genital hygiene might reduce the occurrence of a highly lethal form of cancer by at least 10 percent.”

Still in Denial

Johnson & Johnson says on its website, “Science, research clinical evidence and 30 years of studies by medical experts around the world continue to support the safety of cosmetic talc.” 

Facts about Talc is another page on the J&J website explaining the controversy.

In one trial, law firm, Beasley Allen shows on its website two talc products – one purchased from Dollar Tree (Angel of Mine Baby Powder), and another from Walmart (Spring Fresh Powder).

Both have explicit warnings on the label!

“Frequent application of talcum powder in the female genital area may increase the risk of ovarian cancer,” and “Medical evidence suggests that women who use talcum powder as a feminine hygiene product run a greater risk of developing ovarian cancer.”

Should Have Known  

One complaint says the company should have known about the link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder in 1971 when the first study was conducted by Dr. WJ Henderson in Wales.

By 1982, the first epidemiological study was conducted by Dr. Daniel Cramer which found a 92% increased risk in ovarian cancer among women using talc for genital use. Twenty-two additional studies since then have reported an elevated risk for ovarian cancer associated with genital-talc use in women, according to one plaintiffs’ complaint.

Talc was found to be a carcinogen in a 1993 study by the US National Toxicology Program, whether it was found with or without asbestos-like fibers.

Industry PR

As might be expected, industry formed its own association the Talc Interested Party Task Force (TIPTF) to pool resources and defend talc use, and to prevent its regulation.  Scientists were hired to explain the safety of talc, while scientific papers were edited by scientists hired by industry, all to promote disinformation, says one complaint.

The Cancer Prevention Coalition in November 1994 sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson CEO Ralph Larsen, informing him as far back and the 1960’s studies show “conclusively that the frequent use of talcum powder in the genital area pose a serious health risk of ovarian cancer.”

It said 14,000 women die every year from ovarian cancer because it is very difficult to detect and has a low survival rate.

Instead, J&J advertised Johnson’s Baby Powder to “use every day to help feel soft, fresh, and comfortable.” The company advertised its other talcum powder product, Show to Shower with the slogan, “A sprinkle a day keeps odor away.” Another slogan was “Your body perspires in more places than just under your arms,” and “Shower to Shower can be used all over your body.”

Studies show African-American women are more inclined to use vaginal deodorants, so J&J targeted marketing to the black community.

By 1996, the condom industry stop dusting condoms with talc due to health concerns of ovarian cancer.

Since 2006, the International Association for the Research of Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, has classified perineal use of talcum body powder as a Group 2B human carcinogen.  Among women using talc genitally, IARC found an increase in ovarian cancer risk from 30 to 60%.

Canada has classified talc as D2A or very toxic, the same classification as asbestos.

To this day, the J&J Baby Powder still does not an adequate warning or instructions regarding the increased risk of ovarian cancer with use of the products.

Author, Jane Akre is a journalist who focuses on injuries to women by drugs or devices. She provides quality research, blogs, interviews, content and copywriting services to law firms. She is currently creating the website,, preparing her first podcast, and would love to talk to you about your goals.  You can reach her through her website or at (904) 613-2828.


Imerys Talc;2

EuroTalc, Scientific Association of European Talc Producers

Material Data Safety Sheet

Fourth Amended Complaint August 14, 2017, Here 2008 study partially funded by industry-firm representing Luzenac America, a talc manufacturer, here

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