Should you stop using baby powder?

Posted April 10

A thousand women have sued Johnson & Johnson, saying the company knew its iconic baby powder caused cancer. Do we need to stop using powder? (Deseret Photo)

A thousand women are suing Johnson & Johnson, saying the company knew its iconic Johnson's Baby Powder caused cancer yet covered up the risk. A trial set to begin April 11 in St. Louis comes on the heels of a $72 million award to the family of an Alabama woman who died of ovarian cancer at age 62 after using the powder every day since she was a teen.

Although Johnson & Johnson assures customers its product is safe, the litigation and resulting publicity has families asking if a century-old fixture in nurseries and bathrooms is dangerous. The answer, according to the American Cancer Society and other medical professionals, is "probably not" — unless you use a lot of it for a long time. But they advise consumers to be careful, and one doctor is crusading against it, saying the product should carry a warning label.

Like most forms of powder, Johnson's Baby Powder contains fragrance and talc, which, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports, "is the softest mineral on earth."

"It’s composed of magnesium, silicon and oxygen and is mined, usually from deposits above ground, in more than a dozen countries. It’s used in eye shadow and blush and chewing gum, but mostly it’s used in ceramics, paint, paper, plastic and rubber. China is the biggest source; Johnson & Johnson’s supply comes from the southern province of Guangxi," Bloomberg reporters Susan Berfield, Jef Feeley and Margaret Cronin Fisk wrote.

The company has built a brand around baby products that appeal to adults. Johnson & Johnson has said 70 percent of its powder is used by adults who often have powerful memories associated with the smell, Bloomberg reported.

"The company has said that in blind tests, the scent of Baby Powder is recognized more often than that of chocolate, coconut or mothballs," Berfield, Feeley and Fisk wrote.

Some talc, however, contains asbestos, a substance known to cause lung and other forms of cancer. In the U.S., commercially-available talcum powder has had to be free of asbestos since the 1970s, the American Cancer Society says.

Whether asbestos-free talc causes cancer remains unclear, the group says, noting that some studies have suggested a slightly higher risk of cancer with use while others say there is no increase of risk.

The Cancer Society concludes, "Until more information is available, people concerned about using talcum powder may want to avoid or limit their use of consumer products that contain it. For example, they may want to consider using cornstarch-based cosmetic products instead. There is no evidence at this time linking cornstarch powders with any form of cancer."

Baby powder is considered a cosmetic, and as such, does not require approval from the Food and Drug Administration. However, the FDA has tested the powder and other cosmetics containing talc and found no asbestos. The FDA said the tests were "informative" but "do not prove that most or all talc or talc-containing cosmetic products currently marketed in the United States are likely to be free of asbestos contamination."

The American Academy of Pediatricians says to keep powder away from a baby's face. The U.S. National Library of Medicine says talcum-powder poisoning can occur when powder is inhaled.

Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson has said it will appeal the jury award.

"The recent U.S. verdict goes against decades of sound science proving the safety of talc as a cosmetic ingredient in multiple products, and while we sympathize with the family of the plaintiff, we strongly disagree with the outcome," spokeswoman Carol Goodrich told CNN.


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