A 1971 study by W. J. Henderson et al. involving an extraction-replication technique to examine tissue from patients with cervical ovarian tumor found particles of talc embedded in 75 percent of the obtained tumor tissues. The controversial finding stirred further inquiries regarding the carcinogenic potential of talc, especially the possible link between talcum powder and cancer.
Does Talcum Powder Cause Cancer: Early Hypothesis Explaining the Association Between Talc Use and the Development of Cancer
Note that talc is a mineral composed of hydrated magnesium silicate. It has several industrial uses, including the manufacturing or production of ceramics, electric cables, paper, paint and coatings, and rubber, among others. The most popular and commercialized application of talc or talcum powder is in the production of baby powder and other cosmetic products.
The hypothesized link between talcum powder and cancer first emerged from an understanding that some talc might contain traces of asbestos— a known carcinogen linked to lung cancer and ovarian cancer development. Talc mineral deposits sometimes coexist with asbestos ore. However, stringent quality control since 1976 that includes determining between cosmetic-grade and food-grade talc between industrial-grade talc has rendered this as a non-issue.
Others have also hypothesized a link between talcum powder and cancer because of the chemical similarity of talc to asbestos. Both allegedly have the potential to cause minuscule damages that can lead to cancer development.
Several earlier case-control studies have further associated the use of talk with an increased risk of ovarian cancer. However, according to researchers D. M. Gertic et al., the established association was controversial because of limited supporting biologic evidence and the potential for recall bias or selection bias in these case-control studies.
Additional Studies: Finding the Link Between Talcum Powder and Ovarian Cancer and Endometrial Carcinoma
Nonetheless, Gertic et al. conducted a prospective cohort study that involved enrolling 121,700 female registered nurses in the United States in 1976. They ascertained talc use in 1982 using a self-administered questionnaire. After reviewing the enrollees to trim down the number of most suitable participants, 78,300 female registered nurses formed the analysis cohort.
The cohort showed 307 cases of epithelial ovarian cancers confirmed further by medical review and additional inclusion criteria. However, the analysis showed no overall association between talc use and epithelial ovarian cancer and no increased risk of ovarian cancer with increasing talc use frequency.
Gertic et al. concluded that their results provided little support for any significant association between genital or perineal talc use and overall ovarian cancer risk. However, this perineal use may modestly increase the risk of invasive serious ovarian cancer.
Another study by Stalo Karageorgi et al. that involved finding an association between perineal use of talcum powder and endometrial cancer risk revealed an additional association relating to non-hormonal risk factors. They analyzed 66,028 women with 599 incident cases of invasive endometrial adenocarcinoma diagnosed between 1982 and 2004.
Endometrial cancer or endometrial carcinoma is a type of cancer of the uterus that starts in the endometrium. The endometrium is the inner lining of the uterus. Note that tumors formed in this area are categorically different from sarcoma of the uterus.
Results of the study revealed no observed overall association. However, the association varied by menopausal status. There was a positive association observed among postmenopausal women linking the ever use of talcum powder with a 21 percent increase in the risk of endometrial cancer. Regular or at least once-a-week use of talcum powder was associated with a 24 increase in risk. Karageorgi et al. also observed a borderline increase in risk with increasing frequency of use. They concluded that perineal use of talcum powder increases the risk of endometrial cancer, particularly among postmenopausal women.
Other studies investigated the link between the perineal use of talcum powder and cancer, especially the development of specific types of cancer such as ovarian and uterus cancer in women. B. L. Harlow and P. A. Hartge reviewed some of these studies conducted before 1995. They concluded it was plausible that talc could cause ovarian cancer, but conclusive evidence remains inexistent.
Conclusion: Classification of Talc and Current Consensus
However, despite these studies, there is still no direct causation. It also remains unclear how talcum powder can possibly trigger the development of cancer. The separate studies of Harlow and Hartge, and Henderson et al. had called for the need to establish biological evidence, including epidemiologic studies and clinicopathological studies, to understand further the link between talcum powder and cancer.
The American Cancer Society mentioned that talcum powder might cause cancer in the ovaries if the fine or pulverized minerals were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary after application to the genital area or using napkins containing talc.
But the organization reiterated that the findings of conducted studies linking talcum powder and ovarian cancer had been mixed. Some studies reported a slight increase in risk, while some reported the absence of risk. The same is also true for studies linking talcum powder and endometrial cancer.
Research in this area continues. It is essential to take note of the fact that the International Agency for Research on Cancer or IARC of the World Health Organization classified talc that contains asbestos as carcinogenic to humans. However, based on the lack of data from human studies and limited lab animal studies, IARC classifies inhaled talc with no asbestos as not carcinogenic to humans. Furthermore, based on studies linking talcum powder and ovarian cancer, the IARC classifies the perineal use of talc-based products such as baby powder with no asbestos as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Gertig, D. M., Hunter, D. J., Cramer, D. W., Colditz, G. A., Speizer, F. E., Willett, W. C., and Hankinson, S. E. 2000. “Prospective Study of Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer.” JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 92(3): 249-252. DOI: 1093/jnci/92.3.249
- Harlow, B. L., and Hartge, P. A. 1995. “A Review of Perineal Talc Exposure and Risk of Ovarian Cancer.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. 21(2): 254-260. DOI: 1006/rtph.1995.1039
- Henderson, W. J., Joslin, C. A. F., Griffiths, K., and Turnbull, A. C. 1971. “Talc and Carcinoma of the Ovary and Cervix.” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 78(3): 266-272. DOI: 1111/j.1471-0528.1971.tb00267.x
- Karageorgi, S., Gates, M. A., Hankinson, S. E., and De Vivo, I. 2010. “Perineal Use of Talcum Powder and Endometrial Cancer Risk.” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention. 19(5): 1269-1275. DOI: 1158/1055-9965.epi-09-1221