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Talc may cause cancer and it's not just in baby powder

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

Talcum powder allegedy causes cancer and it's used in your cosmetics

Baby powder sounds so clean and innocent. But according to a recent lawsuit, baby powder and other cosmetic items containing talc are anything but "fresh as a baby's bottom." They may even be hurting you.

Johnson & Johnson, the company with all the adorable baby commercials that may or may not make me cry an embarrassing amount, was recently ordered to pay $72 million to the family of Jackie Fox, a woman who died of ovarian cancer after years of using the company's talc-based products.

More: You can prevent cancer, says World Health Organization

The link between ovarian cancer and talc products has been established since the 1980s, according to the lawsuit, and is the reason the mineral was removed from most baby products decades ago. Moreover, Johnson & Johnson knew about it but failed to warn consumers.

Johnson & Johnson is contesting the ruling, saying the evidence isn't that clear-cut.

So what's a girl to do in the meantime? Even if you don't use Johnson & Johnson baby powder or Shower to Shower (the two products in question), talc is found in a myriad of cosmetics, particularly in "mineral" foundations. Should women be actively avoiding talc?

More: 10 toxins found in common cosmetics

Maybe, says Dr. James Sanchez, an oncologist and a cancer expert with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, part of the U.S. Oncology Network.

"This is a tough question to answer because when you review the studies on talc, the results are not straightforward," he explains. "The lab studies (studies on animals) have had mixed results, and the epidemiology studies (studies on people) have been retroactive where study authors are relying on people’s memories on how they used talc-based products in the past. Therefore, most of these studies are biased and may or may not be helpful."

Part of the reason for the ambiguity may be because early talc products contained a naturally occurring form of asbestos, a known carcinogen. Newer talc products, however, are manufactured without asbestos. And it's difficult to separate the two in the studies done on people.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Talc is not difficult to avoid, Sanchez says. "I tell my patients if they are worried, then avoid the products, especially around the genitals and face," he explains, adding that cornstarch-based products are a safe alternative for women looking for a similar powder-type product. Plus, many new cosmetics are being formulated specifically without talc (hint: look for "talc-free" on the packaging).

This may be one case where it's better to be safe than sorry, especially because there are so many great, affordable alternatives.

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