Cancer Featured

Does talc cause ovarian cancer?

Talcum powder on hands
Written by Dr. Al Covens

Q: What’s up with talc? My mom saw a headline and said it causes ovarian cancer. Is that true? What about men?

A: Well, it’s a bit more complex than that. Some research studies have found a weak association between talc and ovarian cancer. From a scientific point-of-view and epidemiologic one, we would need to find a strong association to assume a causal relationship. A causal relationship means that one is the direct result of the other.

The fact that talc has been found to be carcinogenic in other areas complicates this further. Despite the weak evidence, there have been a few successful class action suits in the United States, and a suit now in Canada too (probably the recent headline your mom saw to lead her to her conclusion). There’s also been some controversy about whether there’s trace amounts of asbestos in all kinds of talc. Asbestos is a known carcinogen if inhaled.

Talc is a mineral that is mainly made up of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. It absorbs moisture and smells, and has other properties that make it really popular in cosmetic products, like body powders.

I believe most experts feel there is no direct causal relationship between perineal (genital and anal) talc and ovarian cancer. You can sometimes find talc in pelvic tissues of people with no cancer, and of course, in some patients who do have ovarian cancer. The relationship is not strong enough to define it as causal.

That said, I would advise women not to use talc in the perineum (on or in your vagina or anus, on sanitary pads, or in your underwear). Not that I would say it causes ovarian cancer, but it is a weak carcinogenic substance. In general, not sure any “drying” agent is required, as opposed to good perineal hygiene, such as avoidance of very tight clothes, synthetic underwear or pantyhose.

There is more research about talc with respect to other cancers. Find out more here.

As for your question about men, in my role as a gynecologic oncologist, I’m most familiar with data about gynecology. But the bottom line is, it’s probably best for everyone to avoid using talc in their genital areas.

About the author

Dr. Al Covens

Dr. Al Covens is a gynecologic oncologist at Sunnybrook.