Ovarian cancer and talcum powder: Understanding your risk

Talcum powder

This week, a jury in California has ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $417m (£323m) to a woman who claimed she developed ovarian cancer as a result of decades of using Johnson’s Baby Powder for feminine hygiene. Digital Communications Assistant Libby van den Bosch takes a closer look at the evidence...

Eva Echeveria successfully sued the pharmaceutical giant this week, over allegations that the company failed to warn consumers about the cancer risks of using talc-based products on the genital area. Johnson & Johnson currently faces over 4,800 similar lawsuits across the USA.

According to the BBC, Carol Goodrich, a spokesperson for the company, said: "We will appeal today's verdict because we are guided by the science.”

While the size of the payout appears to suggest irrefutable proof of a link between talc and ovarian cancer, the evidence, it seems, is inconclusive. As a study of over 75,000 nurses concluded, “Our results provide little support for any substantial association between perineal talc use and ovarian cancer risk overall; however, perineal talc use may modestly increase the risk of invasive serous ovarian cancers.”

With Johnson & Johnson planning to appeal the case, there is also a high chance that the payout will be overturned, or at least significantly reduced, as it has in other instances.

So the link between ovarian cancer and talc hasn’t been proved, but it also hasn’t been conclusively debunked. What this case has brought to light, however, is the danger of the judicial system drawing concrete conclusions where the scientific community has not. 

The courtroom jury may have spoken in this instance, but it is vital to remember – as far as the link between talc-based products and ovarian cancer is concerned, the scientific jury is still out.

Our advice

Katherine Taylor, CEO of Ovarian Cancer Action, advises, “Do not panic. Given that the evidence is inconsistent, we do advocate a ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude and advise women using talc on their genitals to stop doing so – but it is important to remember that the suggested increased risk from using talcum powder is very small. We are talking about the difference between 2% and 2.5%." 

Ovarian cancer is a relatively rare disease, so even if this is the case, very few women who use talcum powder will get ovarian cancer.

Meanwhile the NHS Choices website says: "The study is not able to prove cause and effect.  It appears people were asked about talc use after their cancer diagnosis, which may introduce recall bias", and "The study also cannot determine whether the use of talc or ovarian cancer occurred first."

More easily identifiable risk factors include family history and genetics (in particular carrying the BRCA1/2 gene mutation); age; being overweight or obese; and smoking. You can find more information on ovarian cancer risk here.