Does Talcum Powder Cause Ovarian Cancer? Here’s The Latest

February 14, 2020

It’s been suggested that regular use of talcum powder products in the genital area might increase the possibility of ovarian cancer. In theory, particles of talc could travel through the reproductive tract to the ovaries and cause cancer. Research on this potential link has yielded mixed findings, with some studies finding a small increase in risk.

The largest study to examine the question, published in early 2020, found no statistically significant link between genital talc use and ovarian cancer. But despite its size (with data from 252,745 women, 38% of whom said they used talc in their genital area), it may not have been large enough to detect a small increase in risk because few of the women developed ovarian cancer, the study authors stated. Another study, published in 2013 by investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, found a 25% increase in risk for women using talcum powder in the genital region.

Many of these studies suffer from incomplete data on patients’ family history of ovarian or breast cancer, as well as the duration and frequency of powder use, says Panos Konstantinopoulos, MD, PhD, director of translational research in gynecologic oncology at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber.

“For the most part, population-based studies have shown a statistically significant association between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer risk, while hospital-based studies showed that this association is not statistically significant,” he says.

In addition, none of the studies found that risk rose with increased exposure to the powder, and there is no evidence that using talc on other parts of the body affects ovarian cancer risk.

Panos Konstantinopoulos, MD, PhD, works on endometrial cancer research at Dana-Farber.
Panos Konstantinopoulos, MD, PhD.

What is talcum powder used for?

Talcum powder is made from talc, a mineral consisting mostly of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. Because it absorbs moisture well and reduces friction, it’s used to keep skin dry and prevent rashes.

Is talcum powder safe to use?

In 2006, the International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, classified the use of talc in the genital area as “possibly carcinogenic [cancer-causing] to humans.” This ranking, the weakest classification given by the IARC, reflects the lack of decisive evidence about the powder’s risks.

The American Cancer Society also states that “studies of personal use of talcum powder have had mixed results, although there is some suggestion of a possible increase in ovarian cancer risk. Its bottom-line recommendation is, “until more information is available, people concerned about using talcum powder may want to avoid or limit their use of consumer products that contain it.”

For his part, Konstantinopoulos says that when he talks to patients about a possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer, “I tell them the data are controversial, and that if such a risk exists, it is likely small to moderate. At the same time, however, there are no official guidelines to avoid genital talc powder use as a way to prevent ovarian cancer.”

About the Medical Reviewer

Panagiotis (Panos) A. Konstantinopoulos, MD, PhD

Panagiotis (Panos) A Konstantinopoulos, MD, PhD is Director of Translational Research and attending oncologist in the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. His translational research career focuses on ovarian cancer and other gynecologic malignancies with an important niche in the areas of DNA Damage and Repair and Immunotherapy. His work has focused on unraveling mechanisms of resistance to chemotherapy and targeted agents, developing the rationale and preclinical data for novel drug combinations in ovarian cancer, and on identification of novel diagnostic and predictive biomarkers of therapeutic response in gynecologic cancers as well investigating their mechanistic implication in carcinogenesis.

His research efforts in this area have been supported by several Harvard-wide, industry and national sources including the Department of Defense (DOD), Ovarian Cancer Research Program (OCRP) and the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR). As a clinical researcher, he is also involved as a principal investigator (PI) and co-investigator in several gynecologic cancer clinical trials. Dr Konstantinopoulos has served as a member of the Editorial Board of Journal of Clinical Oncology, is co-chair of the Dana Farber Harvard Cancer Center (DFHCC) Audit Committee and a member of the Gynecologic Oncology Group (GOG) Experimental Medicine Committee.

After receiving his MD and PhD from University of Patras in Greece, Dr Konstantinopoulos completed internship and residency at State University of New York at Syracuse, followed by a medical oncology fellowship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. He also received a Master's degree in Clinical Investigation from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Department of Health Sciences and Technology.