Behind the label: talcum powder

| 13th April 2010
Keeping your baby's bottom soft and dry shouldn't mean exposing it to a potentially harmful and environmentally costly substance

Talcum powder is a traditional mainstay of freshness. We use it liberally on babies' bottoms and to absorb perspiration on hot summer days and nights. A few of us are old enough to remember our mothers having special dishes of talc in the bathroom which had big inviting powder puffs to help you dust your body, and most of the bathroom floor, with the stuff.

But time marches on and the benign image of talc has taken a something of a knock.

In recent years considerable doubt has been cast on the safety of powders containing talc, particularly when used on babies. Indeed, some baby powders now include a warning on the label to keep the powder away from the child's nose and mouth.

Potential contamination

Talc, or magnesium silicate, is made up of finely ground particles of stone. Because it originates in the ground, and is a mined product, it can be contaminated with other substances. In its raw state, for instance, talc contains asbestos.

Since the 1970s, manufacturers have removed most of the asbestos from the talc during processing, though traces may still remain in the finished product. Industrial exposure to asbestos, of course, is linked to serious lung disease, notably asbestosis, which can lead to lung cancer.

The harmful effects of talc on human tissue were first recorded in the 1930s. Although occupational exposure to talc has been shown to more than double the risk of lung cancer, everyday talc use can also be problematical. Even if it doesn't contain asbestos, talc is still basically just finely ground particles of stone that can lodge in the lungs and never leave. Babies whose mothers smother them in talc have been shown to have a higher risk of breathing difficulties.

Since the early 1980s, records show that several thousand infants each year have died or become seriously ill following accidental inhalation of baby powder.

A cancer link

Some of the most worrying evidence relates to talc's everyday use and the link with ovarian cancer. A series of studies in the late 1990s linked talc to ovarian cancer (see references), in which talc was observed in a number of ovarian and uterine tumours as well as in ovarian tissue. It has since been confirmed that talc, either placed on the perineum (or on the surface of underwear or sanitary towels), can reach the ovaries via ascent through the fallopian tubes. It is now estimated that women who frequently use talc on their genital area have three times the risk of developing ovarian cancer compared to non-users.

The talc once used in the manufacture of condoms carried a similar risk. In the 1960s the medical journal the Lancet reported the first case of a woman who had a significant amount of talc in her peritoneal (abdominal) cavity. Laboratory tests confirmed that the talc in her body matched that found on the surface of her husband's condoms. The authors concluded that talc travelled up through the fallopian tubes and became implanted her abdomen. Talc sprinkled on diaphragms may also be implicated in such problems.

Frequent exposure

That big bottle of talcum powder or baby powder in the bathroom, however, isn't our only exposure to talc. The fine white powder is a component of several common products, including eye-shadow, lipsticks, deodorants and soaps, in a market that is worth billions to the cosmetics industry.

It is likely that most women are using cosmetics on a daily basis that are talc-based. And of course the more we use, the greater the market demand; the greater the market demand, the more complex the problems associated with talc use become.

Environmental impact

Talc isn't just a human hazard. Demand for talc for cosmetic uses is, according to many reports, being met by illegal mining in animal sanctuaries, and in particular the destruction of the Indian tiger's habitat. There used to be more than 20,000 tigers in India. Now, despite heroic efforts by conservationists to protect the last 3,000 of the great cats still roaming in remote areas, the Indian tiger is facing extinction.

An Observer newspaper report in 2003 suggested that some of Britain's leading cosmetic manufacturers were sourcing talc from illegal mining operations in sanctuaries critical to the survival of the tiger. These operations were centered about 250km south-west of Delhi in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The area is home to the Jamwa Ramgarh Wildlife Sanctuary and the neighbouring Sariska Tiger Reserve.

The report painted a dramatic picture of disregard for nature: 'Using dynamite to blast the area for soapstone, wealthy mine owners are ripping up the habitat with blatant disregard for the surrounding environment and impoverished rural communities that live close by...Slurries of waste the size of tower blocks litter the landscape. Large areas of forest have been depleted as trees make way for the mining operations. The mining leaves 90m-deep craters where trees once stood.'

Talc's desirability as an ingredient and its profitability on the world market means that illegal mines are still in operation today. And it's not hard to envisage the arrival of 'peak talc': in January of 2009 a report from the Government of Bhutan noted that while talc reserves in that country were at the point of exhaustion, licenses were still being granted to mining companies.

Try an alternative

So what do you do if you want to stay powder fresh? If you are desperate for a body powder, consider a cornstarch powder instead. You can buy these or quickly and easily make a very efficient and inexpensive body powder using cornstarch. Try combining one part baking soda to eight parts of cornstarch. Mix these thoroughly adding 10-15 drops of your favourite essential oil if you want something scented. Store in an airtight container (either a jar, or an old talc container or you can recycle one of those Italian cheese shakers).

Instead of using powder, let your baby go without nappies as often as possible, or investigate cotton cloth nappies which allow the skin to breath and have been shown to cause less nappy rash than disposables.

The bottom line (forgive the pun) is that it is better not to use talc or talc-containing products if you can help it. Giving up body powders is relatively easy. Giving up your eye shadow may be less so (though try applying it with a damp sponge to minimise fallout). But whatever you can do to cut your exposure to talc will benefit your health and reduce the impact on the environment.

1. Hollinger MA. 'Pulmonary toxicity of inhaled and intravenous talc' Toxicology Letters, 52:121-127, 1990.
2. Cook LS, et al Perineal powder exposure and the risk of ovarian cancer, Am J Epidemiol 1997; 145:459-65.
3. Gertrg DM, et al, Prospective study of talc use and ovarian cancer, J Natl Cancer Inst; 2000: 92:249-52.
4. Harlow BL, et al, Perineal exposure to talc and ovarian cancer risk, Obstet Gynecol, 1992; 80: 19-26.
5. Harlow BL Weiss NS, A case-control study of borderline ovarian tumors: the influence of perineal exposure to talc, Am J Epidemiol,130(2): 390-94
6. Kaspar CS et al, Possible morbidity in women from talc on condoms, JAMA, 1995; 273(11): 846-7

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