Does baby powder cause cancer? Sort of.
A few weeks ago, The Today Show aired a segment about Jacqueline Fox, the woman who was awarded $72 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson—her lawyers originally asked for $12 million, but the jury effectively decided to award her an additional million for every year she was alive—in response to her lawsuit alleging that J&J’s talc-based baby powder contributed to her ovarian cancer.
There is an overwhelming amount of misinformation happening around discussion of this case, and I wanted to make sure I did a little bit to help clear it up. Here’s what you need to know:
It’s not just J&J’s baby powder that may contribute to ovarian cancer. It’s any powder that uses “talc,” and it impacts bodies with vaginas, uteruses, and ovaries in ways that it wouldn’t for anyone without those three qualities.
Talc-based powders gained traction in use for intimate feminine hygiene by women feeling encouraged to sprinkle them on their undies to help diminish the scent of vaginal odor, thanks to talc’s ability to absorb moisture and odor, leaving women feeling more “fresh.” What also happens, however, is the talc travels up into the vagina and into the fallopian tubes, causing inflammation and irritation, which then can “turn into” cancer. This is neither new nor news. This isn’t even J&J’s first ride at the rodeo.
It’s worth noting that talc, being the softest mineral on Earth, is used in countless regularly used items from eyeshadows and blushes to maxi pads and diaphragms to papers and plastics. It’s in tons of body powders, bronzers, and other items women are encouraged to use to solidify their femininity and signal it to the masses… which leads me to my next point.
J&J reported, as far back as the ‘80s, that 70% of their baby powder is actually used by adults, and I’d imagine the majority of those are women… specifically women of color. J&J went so far as to actually attempt to target these communities—like virtually all companies do—when their sales began dipping. As pointed out by this Time op-ed, there’s a special kind of misogyny that trails black and brown women from youth to their elder years.
Like pressing our hair and lotioning our legs, douching and deodorizing vaginas is something black women teach our daughters and sister-friends teach our friends. It’s part of black women’s culture of self-care, one of many ways we love and nurture bodies nobody else seems ready to pamper. [source]
Every time I’ve read ethnographic research regarding how one group of people views another group of people and the response has been honest—and, therefore, unkind—the phrase “smelly” or “stinky” has been involved somehow. The Italians were once “smelly.” South Asians were “smelly.” When you listen to the uninitiated complain about New York City cab drivers from different cultures, they complain about the “smell” of the cabs… not realizing that the “smell” they’re experiencing is often that particular culture’s recipes, often the result of the cabbie packing their lunch in their ride.
Scent is associated with culture; not having a scent is a signifier of having assimilated into the dominant, generic, culture. Assimilation is the signifier of having no discernible—and, by extension, offensive—markers of your “otherness” or “differentness.”
It’s easy to see the message that black women take away from all this: a daily regimen that relies upon baby powder (and douche, for that matter) instead of, say, regular use of soap and water, a healthy diet, and frequent well woman checkups is essential. It’s not enough to have no smell at all—there needs to be a pleasant-yet-artificial smell entirely.Does your baby powder cause ovarian cancer? Sort of. Click To Tweet
When you look at scent through the lens of assimilation, it’s clear why someone with a vagina would fight to hide any scent they could. It’s a reminder that they’re different in a way that could devalue them in public spaces. Men are afforded far more courtesy in the odor department—and, quite honestly, I’m not sure the term “masculine hygiene” has the same selling power as “feminine hygiene”—and being a man’s man, funk and all, is considered a plus in the right setting. Not a minus. There is never a place where smelling a woman as a woman can be considered a plus.
And, to keep it a buck, Chuck? Balls smell. Where’s the powder for that?
This is important to us, here, because one of the first things I see women do before they head out of the locker room into class/the weight room/wherever in the gym, is put a splash of baby powder inside their pants before they go. And, of course, I get it. Aside from the fact that the powder aids in eliminating inner thigh rashes, it also sucks up any moisture or odor that might waft into the air. The last thing anyone wants to be, in the middle of a room where everyone is heavy breathing and panting, is offensive. The truth is, there are very few instances where vaginal odor is so offensive that it’d impact the people near you. And, even though we all know that one person whose intimate odor is so loud you can hear it, we all also know these cases to be the exception and not the norm.
If, in fact, you do believe that you have an odor so strong that it’s cause for concern, don’t be afraid to take your concerns to your gynecologist. In many cases, an odor that strong is causes by something only your gyno could help you with, anyway. It’s literally their job to help you in these particular instances, and get you whatever antibiotics or recommendations you need. If you don’t have the health care you need in order to go to an OBGYN, visit your nearest Planned Parenthood or specialized female care clinic to help get what you need. (Please call the center and ask if they offer the kind of care you need, first. Some centers masquerade as health care clinics, but only exist to try to deter women considering terminating pregnancies and offer no actual care at all.)
The counter argument to the anti-talc conversation comes from a lot of angles. The American Cancer Society, for example, states that “It is not clear if consumer products containing talcum powder increase cancer risk. Studies of personal use of talcum powder have had mixed results, although there is some suggestion of a possible increase in ovarian cancer risk. There is very little evidence at this time that any other forms of cancer are linked with consumer use of talcum powder.” I can only hope that their unwillingness to make a definitive statement isn’t based on, uh…. other factors. (This article from Bloomberg Businessweek is also pretty insightful on the pro-talc argument.)Does your baby powder cause ovarian cancer? Sort of. Click To Tweet
There’s also the fact that you technically can’t say “talc causes cancer,” but that has nothing to do with not being able to prove a link. It’s just the way cancer research works. We can’t say talc “causes” cancer, but we can say that using talc “increases one’s risk of developing cancer.” It’s like speeding—speeding doesn’t directly cause crashes, and there are people who speed and don’t crash, but speeding greatly increases your risk of being involved in a crash. That’s the best way to describe the difference between causing something and being linked to its existence. That’s also the best way to describe talc and ovarian cancer—there are people who use it without developing cancer, and talc doesn’t directly result in cancer, but using it certainly increases the risk.
It’s also important to note that it’s not every J&J baby powder that poses this potential risk. J&J originally only used talc powder to help alleviate rashes caused by another product they sold, but customers let them know the talc powder also worked to prevent infant diaper rashes… hence we now have baby powder. But what if you don’t want to use the stuff anymore? In 2016, choosing better diapers with softer material on the inside combined with changing your baby frequently can help skip the rashes. And, for adults who may still need a little help to keep the inner thighs in check, J&J—among other brands—sells baby powder made from cornstarch. A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives points out that it may cause skin irritation to those allergic to corn and may aggravate those with asthma, which is pretty similar to what the case was with baby powder, anyway.
What’s the takeaway here? For starters, this is a product with no health benefit and the potential for health risk, with readily available alternatives. It’s worth considering chucking it if you’ve got it, and replacing it with something with a less nebulous risk level.
Secondly, caring for your genitals is something we should learn about outside of the confines of shame. It’s okay to have a vagina, it’s okay that it healthily self-lubricates, and it’s okay that it sweats. It’s okay if there’s a scent, and I can promise you that you’re not just weirdly nose-blind to your own super-offensive odor. In fact, I can promise you that unless you have a venereal disease—or an awful diet—your odor isn’t anywhere near as offensive as you think.Does your baby powder cause ovarian cancer? Sort of. Click To Tweet
I also realize that this is just as much about an emotional attachment to your cleansing routine and the way you feel after completing it as it is a natural habit of buying and using that big white plastic bottle. I get it. If that’s you, make sure you pick up the version of baby powder that specifically says “pure cornstarch.” Your body—and, really, your ovaries—will thank you for it!
Photo credit: Bloomberg Businessweek