spilled baby powder
spilled baby powder

If you didn’t know, Johnson & Johnson just lost two major lawsuits, to the tune of $72 million and $55 million, over allegations that the company’s baby powder causes cancer; thousands of others have filed suits claiming the same thing. Bad news if you’re a four-time NBA MVP trying to bring the first professional championship to Cleveland since 1964.

The offending ingredient — and, naturally, J&J disputes the “offending” part — is talcum powder. Talcum will keep you nice and dry, but there’s a negative aspect to it.  The downside, potentially, to that fresh and dry feeling: ovarian cancer.

Plenty of people use talc-based products down below for their moisture-wicking qualities, and to prevent irritation and infections. But is it a short-term health fix that could lead to cancer down the line? And, since the product in question has “baby” right there in the name, is there a reason to be concerned that parents are putting a carcinogen on their infants?

So, two lawsuits mean this stuff causes cancer, right?

“The real answer is that we don’t really know,” says Miami-based obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Jason James. “There is no definitive proof for or against, and if we look at the scientific data it is unclear.”

But a recent study, released after the most recent lawsuit’s verdict, found that applying the product to genitals, underwear, and sanitary napkins could increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer by a third. Yet another found talc to be associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer in African-American women. The American Cancer Society, for its part, acknowledges the public concern, but stops short of saying talcum powder causes ovarian cancer.

Despite the new evidence, there are still doubts, since “scientific consensus emerges over time, especially in cases like this, where the results have been somewhat inconsistent,” as the National Cancer Institute’s head of epidemiology told Reuters. The jury is still out, in other words — except in real-world terms, it isn’t, and with other lawsuits still pending, the verdict on talc may be decided in a court rather than a lab.

Maybe you should steer clear just in case

Johnson & Johnson maintains that its baby powder meets the highest quality, purity, and compliance standards,” and without a smoking-gun study, it’s the company’s word against that of the consumers, which can make for a sticky legal battleground.

“I’m a little surprised that Johnson lost this lawsuit,” admits Dr. James. “I think if they knew it was unsafe they’d probably have recommended all this time not to use it. If you look at the scientific literature over the last decades, there has always been a question of the association of talc product in genital area and ovarian cancer. But we don’t know 100% the cause and effect between.”

That’s why the gynecologist recommends that his patients — many of whom have been asking about the safety of baby powder after the lawsuit — indeed chuck it away.

“It always kind of bothered me, the idea of using talc and the potential it could be causing harm, especially when being used day in, day out,” he says. “It’s better to be in an abundance of safety, especially when there’s a good alternative out there.”

Go for the cornstarch (for real)

Dr. James advises his patients to use 100% cornstarch powder instead of talc-based products (Johnson & Johnson even has a pure cornstarch version).

The American Cancer Society and National Ovarian Cancer Coalition both also recommend that women swap talc for cornstarch, which has similar drying properties.

“The other option is just encouraging patients to dry out very thoroughly and take that extra minute or two to dry out genital area after showering or bathing,” says Dr. James. “Even air-drying a little bit can be a very effective option, as there may not be a lot of other choices in terms of products at least when it comes to (safe) ingredients.”

Ovarian cancer can evade detection

With all these recommendations and alternatives to talcum powder, why won’t anyone just come out and say this stuff is a carcinogen and people should stop using it directly on their nether regions? According to Dr. James, his advice to err on the side of safety is also because “the current options for screening and detecting ovarian cancer are poor.”

He says ovarian cancer isn’t common, but it’s still a serious concern — 20,000 women are diagnosed with the illness each year. “It’s a difficult cancer to detect,” he notes. “In the early stages, there’s not a lot that can be done. Women who are concerned can have an ultrasound of the ovaries done. There’s also a tumor marker called CA125… but often times it won’t be covered by insurance and might not be very accurate in ruling out a potential cancer.”

Choose pubes over powder

Good thing that pubic hair  is coming back into style again, because according to Dr. James, keeping hair down there is among the best ways to protect from rashes and infections caused by unwanted moisture.

“Pubic hair [acts as] a buffer between the layers of the skin,” he says. “Obviously now it’s more socially acceptable to reduce or even eliminate all the pubic hair and that can have a negative effect.” You heard the doctor: keep the bush.

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