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Can Baby Powder Really Give You Ovarian Cancer?

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In February 2016, a Missouri court ruled that Johnson & Johnson must pay $72 million in damages to the family of a woman who developed and died from ovarian cancer after using J&J baby powder for feminine hygiene for 35 years.

They weren't the only ones to take legal action; the company continues to battle claims that they failed to warn consumers that its talc-based products could cause cancer. There have been about 1,000 cases filed in Missouri state court and another 200 in New Jersey, according to Reuters. However, that was the first case where a U.S. jury awarded damages for these claims.

The latest case marks the biggest sum of awarded damages yet; in August 2017, a Los Angeles jury just ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay a record $417 million to Eva Echeverria, a California woman dying of ovarian cancer who used their baby powder for feminine hygiene from the 1950s to 2016.

"Mrs. Echeverria is dying from this ovarian cancer and she said to me all she wanted to do was to help the other women throughout the whole country who have ovarian cancer for using Johnson & Johnson for 20 and 30 years," says Echeverria's attorney Mark Robinson, as reported by the Associated Press

"Ovarian cancer is a devastating diagnosis and we deeply sympathize with the women and families impacted by this disease," Carol Goodrich, a representative for Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., said in a statement, as reported by CNN. "We will appeal today's verdict because we are guided by the science, which supports the safety of Johnson's Baby Powder. In April, the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query Editorial Board wrote, 'The weight of evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer.' We are preparing for additional trials in the US and we will continue to defend the safety of Johnson's Baby Powder."

Baby powder is talcum powder, which is made from talc, a mineral that is good at absorbing moisture and helping to cut down on friction. In its natural form, some talc contains asbestos (which has been linked to an increased lung cancer risk when inhaled) but has been removed from all talc-based household products since the 1970s, according to the American Cancer Society. Even with the asbestos removed, studies provide inconclusive evidence for the link between using talc for feminine hygiene and the risk of developing gynecological cancers. (Pssst....Check out 4 Things You Didn't Know About Ovarian Cancer.)

The research rundown: Two 1999 studies published in the International Journal of Cancer investigated the link between genital talc exposure and the risk of cancer, and had slightly different results: one study concluded that there's a significant association between the use of talc in genital hygiene and risk of epithelial ovarian cancer (the most common form of ovarian cancer). The other study found little support for any substantial association between talc use and overall ovarian cancer risk but found that it may modestly increase the risk of a type of epithelial ovarian cancer. The results of a 2010 study suggest that perineal talcum powder use increases the risk of endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterus), particularly among postmenopausal women. But in 2013, a study found no significant trend in ovarian cancer risk with increasing number of lifetime powder applications down there, or among women who only reported using powder on other body parts. Similarly, a 2014 study found that women who had used talc powder on their genitals did not have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. 

Confused? Here's the short of it: "Some studies suggest baby powder increases ovarian cancer risk and others do not," says Monica Prasad, M.D., gynecological oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "There are so many factors that go into the development of ovarian cancer that we cannot easily point to one factor as causing ovarian cancer in a patient. That said, most clinicians do not recommend the use of talc containing powders in the perineal area. I would tell my patients not to use any talc-containing products to stay on the safe side."

So if you've been keeping fresh with baby powder for years, there's no need to panic—but you should probably rethink your habit, and try a non-talc powder. Johnson's makes versions made of pure cornstarch, or you can try this one from California Baby.

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