Questions have been raised since the 1970s about the possibility that talcum powder contains asbestos. This is because some talc has been mined in areas where there are also deposits of asbestos. Asbestos is known to cause the deadly cancer mesothelioma.
The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies talc with asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans” and genital talcum powder use as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
In addition, many experts warn against the use of talc-based powders because they say breathing in talc can cause respiratory problems.
Though results have been mixed, some evidence suggests that when talc enters the body — such as through inhalation or by traveling through the vagina — it can stay in the body for a long time and trigger chronic irritation or an inflammatory response that in some people may progress to cancer or serious other diseases.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes talc may cause a response in the body that may develop into cancer. However, the agency does not require talc products to carry warning labels that alert consumers of all the potential risks, citing a lack of “conclusive evidence” that shows talc causes cancer.
Diseases other than ovarian cancer linked to talcum powder use include:
- Lung Cancer
- Respiratory diseases
- Uterine Cancer
- Cervical Cancer
Talc, Asbestos and Mesothelioma
Asbestos is a mineral that can be found in close proximity to talc on the earth’s surface. As a result, talc has been mined from deposits interwoven with asbestos fibers.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies asbestos-tainted talc as “carcinogenic to humans.” IARC is part of the World Health Organization.
Asbestos causes mesothelioma, an often fatal cancer. In 2015, a jury awarded a California woman $13 million after it determined she had developed mesothelioma from asbestos in talcum powder. Judith Winkel told the court she used the talcum powder for 15 years, beginning in 1961.
Other asbestos-related diseases include asbestosis, a deadly lung disease characterized by severe scarring and inflammation of the lung tissue; and pleural effusion, buildup of excess fluid in the space between linings of the lungs, known as the pleural space.
Asbestos-related diseases include:
- Mesothelioma and other cancers
- Pleural Effusions
- Pleural Plaques
- Diffuse Pleural Thickening
In 1973, federal laws required commercial talcum products to be asbestos-free. The FDA tested cosmetics and talc products during a yearlong laboratory survey nearly four decades later. The agency said it found no asbestos fibers and labeled the results as “informative” but not conclusive. It did not go as far as saying no asbestos-contaminated talc products were being sold in the U.S.
Symptoms of Asbestos-related Diseases
Symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not appear for 10 to 50 years after first exposure to the toxic substance and may differ depending on the type of asbestos-related condition.
Chest pain and shortness of breath are associated with many of the conditions. Other symptoms may include wheezing and tightness in the chest.
General symptoms of an asbestos-related disease may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in your chest
- Persistent dry cough
- Chest pain
- Appetite loss
Asbestos-related Disease Treatment
Symptoms of asbestos-related diseases vary and so do the treatment options. Many treatments are palliative, meaning they are intended to ease symptoms of the condition, not cure it. That’s because conditions like mesothelioma have no cure.
A combination of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy may be offered to asbestos-related cancer patients while medications, oxygen therapy, breathing techniques and pulmonary rehabilitation may be helpful treatments for other asbestos-related conditions.
Ironically, one treatment involves using talc. Known as talc pleurodesis, the treatment aims to ease symptoms of pleural effusions, usually in mesothelioma patients. The procedure starts with draining excess fluid from the pleural space and inserting talc through a chest tube to cause inflammation in the chest cavity.
Patients undergoing talc pleurodesis are then asked to lie down for a few hours and periodically change positions to ensure the talc is evenly spread throughout the pleural space. The talc is removed through the same chest tube and scar tissue forms, preventing future fluid buildup.
Talc and Lung Cancer
Inhaling particles of talc can cause chronic lung irritation, and chronic irritation can lead to cancer. Cancer that starts in the lungs is called lung cancer. It is characterized by an abnormal growth of cells.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women and accounts for more cancer-related deaths in the U.S. than the next four causes of cancer-related death combined, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Lung Cancer & Talc studies
Studies have suggested a link between talc and lung cancer risk, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report.
In the early 1990s, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health nominated talc for a study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) because of widespread human exposure to talc and the lack of adequate information on its potential to cause cancer.
In 1993, NTP published the results of talc studies in rats. The federal program exposed groups of rats to aerosols of talc until 80 percent of the rats died. It found “clear evidence” of cancer-causing activity of talc in female rats based on increased incidences of cancerous and noncancerous tumors in the rats’ lungs.
“In mice, inhalation exposure to talc produced chronic inflammation of the lung with the accumulation of aveolar macrophages,” according to the NTP report. Macrophages are the first cells to arrive at the site of infection. Many cancers arise from sites of chronic inflammation and infection.
Since the NTP published its report, other agencies have conducted studies in miners and millers exposed to talc. Some studies show an increased risk of lung cancer with long-term exposure to talc, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Others have found no increase in risk.
“Occupational exposure studies can be complicated by the fact that talc in its natural form may contain varying amounts of asbestos and other minerals,” according to the Cancer Council, an organization committed to reducing the impact of cancer. “Additionally, miners may be exposed to other substances that could affect lung cancer risk, such as radon, leading to difficulties in separating the risks that might be associated with talc from other known risk factors for lung cancer.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published the results of a study in 1995 that included 170 men who mined or milled talc. The agency found talc workers were more likely to get lung cancer. Other researchers think smoking or other types of exposure caused the lung cancer. “However, NIOSH believes that the lung cancer might have been linked to mining and milling talc at this site,” according to the study.
Symptoms of Lung Cancer
Some people with early lung cancer may experience symptoms of the disease; however, most lung cancers do not cause symptoms until they have spread.
Common symptoms of lung cancer include:
- A cough that does not go away or gets worse
- Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing or laughing
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Feeling tired or weak
- New onset of wheezing
- Coughing up blood or rust-colored spit or phlegm
- Shortness of breath
- Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
As lung cancer advances and spreads to other organs, it may cause additional symptoms. Cancer that has spread to the brain or spinal cord may cause nervous system changes, such as headache, dizziness, balance problems, seizures, or weakness or numbness in the arm or leg. Lumps near the surface of the body may indicate cancer has spread to the skin or lymph nodes. Cancer that has spread to the liver may cause jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin and eyes.
Lung Cancer Treatment
How lung cancer is treated depends on the type of lung cancer and how far it has spread. Often times, doctors from different specialties work together to treat lung cancer.
Typically, cancer treatment involves some combination of the following therapies:
Surgery – Cutting out the cancer tissue
Chemotherapy – Shrinking or killing the cancer with special pills and/or medicines given in the veins
Radiation therapy – Killing the cancer using high-energy rays
Targeted therapy – Blocking the growth and spread of cancer cells using pills and/or medicines given in the veins
Some people may choose to look beyond conventional therapy to treat their cancers, such as participating in clinical trials that test new treatment options or trying complementary and alternative medicine, such as meditation, yoga and supplements.
Talc and Uterine Cancer
Perhaps the most common use of talcum powder is for intimate personal hygiene. However, women who dust their private parts with talcum powder to keep moisture, odor and chafing under control may be at an increased risk of developing uterine cancer, also called endometrial cancer.
Uterine cancer is cancer that develops in the uterus, also known as the womb. The uterus is where a baby grows during pregnancy. Although there are different types of uterine cancer, in most cases, this type of cancer starts in the lining of the uterus, which is called the endometrium.
Some experts say that when applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms or condoms, talcum powder particles could travel through the vagina and into the uterus. Talc particles have been found in human ovarian tissue and human pelvic lymph nodes.
“These data support the contention that talc particles can migrate and persist in distant organs; furthermore, the uterus is a more accessible site than the ovaries,” according to a study published by the American Association for Cancer Research.
Researchers in 2010 reported for the first time a link between genital (perineal) use of talcum powder and uterine cancer risk. They suggest inflammation could play a possible role in the development of uterine cancer because talc is a known inflammatory agent and can take years to dissolve in the body.
“Talc may increase endometrial cancer risk by inducing local and/or systemic inflammation,” according to the study’s authors. They say the body may respond to inflammation in the uterus caused by talc by producing white blood cells called macrophages and proteins called cytokine, and by rapidly making a large number of cells. This response could cause DNA damage and trigger cells to acquire properties of cancer.
The study’s authors analyzed 66,028 women with 599 cases of confirmed uterine cancer diagnosed between 1982 and 2004. Among all women, the use of talcum powder at least once was associated with a 13 percent increase in uterine cancer risk. Among postmenopausal women, the use of talcum powder at least once was associated with a 21 percent increase in uterine cancer risk, and talc use at least once a week was linked to a 24 percent increase in uterine cancer risk.
“Our results suggest that perineal talcum powder use increases the risk of endometrial cancer, particularly among postmenopausal women,”
– Concluded by the author’s of a 2010 study
Other studies have not found a link between talcum powder and uterine cancer. The American Cancer Society says more studies are needed.
Uterine Cancer Symptoms
About 85 percent of women diagnosed with uterine cancer experience irregular vaginal bleeding, meaning bleeding between periods or bleeding after menopause. Ten percent of women with uterine cancer have vaginal discharge and 10 percent of women with uterine cancer have pelvic pain.
Symptoms of uterine cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Vaginal discharge
- Trouble urinating
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during intercourse
These symptoms do not always mean a woman has uterine cancer and are more often caused by something other than cancer. Still, it’s important to see a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. To diagnose uterine cancer, doctors may suggest a pelvic exam, imaging tests and a biopsy.
Treating Uterine Cancer
Most women with uterine cancer have a hysterectomy, which is surgery to remove the uterus. Sometimes a surgeon will recommend also removing a woman’s ovaries and fallopian tubes.
Doctors may prescribe radiation, chemotherapy and hormonal therapy to lower the risk of cancer coming back after surgery. These therapies may also be used when surgery is not an option, such as when the cancer cannot be removed with surgery or when a woman can’t have surgery because of other health problems.
Depending on the type and stage of the cancer and the woman’s overall health, a combination of the following treatments may be used to treat uterine cancer:
- Radiation therapy
- Hormone therapy
Talc and Cervical Cancer
Researchers theorize that talc causes uterine and ovarian cancer by entering the vagina and making its way into the uterus and the ovaries. To get to there, talc has to pass through the cervix.
Scientists in Wales first discovered particles of talc embedded in cervical tumors in 1971. This has led to speculation that there is a link between the use of talcum powder and the cancer.
Cervical cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix, which is the lower, narrow part of the uterus. When cervical cancer is detected early, it is very treatable and has good survival rates.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer may not cause symptoms until the cancer has advanced. Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer may include bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal for a particular woman. Another symptom of cervical cancer may be pain during sex.
Abnormal vaginal bleeding may mean bleeding after vaginal sex, bleeding after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, and having periods that are longer or heavier than usual, according to the American Cancer Society.
Unusual vaginal discharge may mean discharge that contains some blood and occurs between periods or after menopause.
Women should see a doctor right away if they experience any of these symptoms. The American Cancer Society recommends having regular screening tests for cervical cancer.
“Ignoring symptoms may allow the cancer to grow to a more advanced stage and lower your chance for effective treatment,” according to the organization’s website.
Cervical Cancer Treatment
Treatment options for cervical cancer depend on the size of the cancer, how far it has grown into the cervix and how far it has spread.
Most women with cervical cancer will have a treatment team made up of doctors from different specialties. The team may include a gynecologist, a gynecologic oncologist, a radiation oncologist and a medical oncologist.
Doctors may recommend surgery or radiation combined with chemotherapy to treat cervical cancer that’s in the earliest stages. Radiation combined with chemotherapy is usually the main treatment for cervical cancer in the later stages. Doctors typically suggest chemotherapy on its own to treat advanced cervical cancer.
Talc and Respiratory Diseases
Talc can be harmful if it is swallowed or inhaled. When a person applies talcum powder, particles of talc enter into the air and become easy to breathe in.
Respiratory diseases linked to talc include:
- Pulmonary talcosis — Acute or chronic lung irritation
- Pneumonia — Lung infection that causes air sacs in one or both lungs to become inflamed
- Asthma — Chronic disease that narrows the airways and limits airflow in and out of the lungs
Inhaled talc particles can cause wheezing, fast and shallow breathing and coughing. In some cases, people, particularly infants, develop respiratory diseases. The American Academy of Pediatrics and doctors who treat children advise against use of baby powders containing talc.
People exposed to talc regularly over time, such as talc miners and millers, may have a higher chance of developing respiratory diseases. According to the CDC, some studies show an increased risk of respiratory diseases in people with long-term exposure to talc.
Respiratory Disease Symptoms
Respiratory diseases are conditions that affect the organs that allow people to breathe. People who suffer from breathing problems caused by respiratory disease may not get enough oxygen in the body.
Signs and symptoms of respiratory disease can vary based on the type of disease. Unfortunately, early signs of respiratory disease, such as not having your usual level of energy, are easy to overlook.
Common symptoms of respiratory disease include:
- Trouble breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling like you’re not getting enough air
- Decreased ability to exercise
- A cough that won’t go away
- Coughing up blood or mucus
- Pain or discomfort when breathing in or out
Treating Respiratory Diseases
For immediate relief — such as in the case of an asthma attack — certain medications can be inhaled and should start to work within minutes.
To control symptoms of some respiratory diseases, medications can be taken daily and are meant to prevent symptoms, not relieve them.
Doctors treating pneumonia may suggest drinking fluids, getting rest and taking certain antibiotics. However, there is no established treatment for pulmonary talcosis, and results have been mixed when steroids and immunosuppressants are used. A patient with end-stage disease may need a transplant.
Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.
Emily Miller is an award-winning writer who has held editorial positions with reputable print and online publications around the U.S. As the editor of Drugwatch.com, Emily draws on her background as both a patient and a journalist to ensure her team of writers provides consumers with the latest and most accurate information on drugs, medical devices, procedures and related lawsuits. Emily holds five Health Literacy certificates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the University of Florida. She is a member of The Alliance of Professional Health Advocates, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society for Technical Communication.