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Is Baby Powder Safe to Use? Depends on What’s in It

Despite divides in legal and scientific communities, it may be best for parents to switch to a safer alternative.

Many parents might be wondering: Is baby powder safe to use? Or is the talc found in baby powder simply a Trojan horse full of potential cancers? There is some concern that baby powder may be dangerous, and, subsequently a growing market for safe alternatives. 

“Johnson & Johnson is currently facing 9,000 lawsuits over its talc-based products in state and federal courts,” Morgan Statt, an investigator with ConsumerSafety.org, told Fatherly. “But studies and expert opinions still fall on both sides of the argument.”

One of the main ingredients in baby powder is talcum powder, made from the mineral talc. Talc alone is verifiably dangerous, as research has repeatedly linked it to cancer. Studies dating back to the 1970s have drawn tenuous links between women who apply talc regularly to their genital area and ovarian cancer. One study found 75 percent of ovarian cancer tumors may contain talc particles, and other research suggests that genital use of talcum powder increases the risk of epithelial ovarian cancer by 20 to 30 percent. So the presence of talcum in baby powder is cause for concern.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has been warning parents about the potential dangers of using talcum powder on infants since 1969. Baby powder has been found to dry out mucous membranes, potentially leading to respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, asthma, pulmonary talcosis, lung fibrosis, and respiratory failure. In extreme cases, talc may be linked to lung cancer. In its natural form, talc contains asbestos, and while consumer products have been officially asbestos-free since the 1970s, earlier this year courts awarded one man $117 million in a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, after he claimed that asbestos in its baby powder contributed to his aggressive lung cancer.

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Yet all of this is tenuous science. The most rigorous, prospective studies have never established a compelling link between baby powder and cancer. That’s why companies are permitted to use talc in baby powder, makeup, deodorants, and even vitamins and supplements. From a legal perspective, talc causes cancer. From a scientific perspective, the jury is still out. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers talc “non-carcinogenic” when inhaled, and merely “possibly carcinogenic” when applied to the genitals. Cancer Research UK claims no legitimate correlation between talcum powder and cancer.

At the same time, it is somewhat concerning that billions of dollars in corporate interests are tied into keeping talc non-carcinogenic. And skeptical parents do have other options. Cornstarch and arrowroot powder are safe alternatives to talc baby powder, found in a number of comparable products.

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“The safety of talcum powder is still being debated in both the scientific and legal communities, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take caution,” Statt says.

So, there isn’t clear evidence that baby powder will cause cancer, but if you prefer to play it safe, opt for a talc-free baby powder alternative like cornstarch or arrowroot powder.