American consumers purchase around $18.8 million worth of baby powder every year, according to data analysis outlet StatisticBrain. Globally, the powder market is expected to reach $659 million by 2019. Surveys show that a large share of that money goes straight to Johnson & Johnson. The company continues to produce two blockbuster baby powder products, both of which are composed primarily of talc, the naturally-occurring mineral that many researchers believe can increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
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Simply-titled and plainly-packaged, “Johnson’s Baby Powder” is, by far, the market leader. In a survey of 28,869 US adults, nearly 19% reported that they, or a household member, used Johnson’s Baby Powder at least once in the last seven days. The company’s “Shower to Shower” line, which comes in a variety of fragrances, ranked second, at 6.73%. Other brands, including store-made baby powders, didn’t even come close. Lumped together, baby powders that aren’t made by Johnson & Johnson had been used in just 15.99% of households, almost 3% fewer than Johnson & Johnson’s flagship product on its own.
The survey also suggested that American consumers tend to use baby powder frequently within the span of any one week. While only 4.71% of households reported no use, 6.45% of respondents told researchers they had used baby powders between two and three times. 17.3% reported using baby powders more often, including 2.11% who said they used the product at least 21 times in a week. That statistic is fairly astounding, considering that 2.11% of 28,869 people is equal to more than 609 consumers.
In recent months, many public health organizations have come out against the use of talc-based baby powders, although their advocacy has been tempered by doubts. Speaking with UK newspaper The Telegraph in May 2016, two major ovarian cancer non-profits called for caution. Anwen Jones, the CEO of Target Ovarian Cancer, told reporters that the charity usually advises against using talcum powder near the genitals. Likewise, CEO of Ovarian Cancer Action Katherine Taylor recommended a “better safe than sorry” approach.
In a similar vein, the American Cancer Society suggests switching from talc-based powders to ones made of corn starch. Johnson and Johnson’s Shower to Shower product is made from both talc and corn starch.
Despite advising consumers to steer clear of these products, most organizations point out that any ovarian cancer risk entailed by talcum powder is likely to be low. To be sure, some researchers still question the causal association between talc and ovarian cancer. But many studies aren’t as dubious. In fact, dozens of papers have reported an increased risk of ovarian cancer among women who habitually use talcum powders as a feminine hygiene product.
As we’ve seen, mainstream scientific organizations, even those who once stubbornly resisted this evidence, are now coming around. While their statements on the topic are still hedged by caveats, experts on ovarian cancer are now generally willing to admit that there may be a possible link between one of the world’s most popular hygiene products and a terrifying disease.
Johnson and Johnson, on the other hand, won’t budge. While most public organizations tell women to avoid using baby powder on the genitals, Johnson & Johnson doesn’t.
For one thing, none of the company’s talc-based products bear any warning about a potential increase in the risk of ovarian cancer. Beyond that, Johnson & Johnson’s marketing materials are adamant that talcum powders are perfectly safe to use anywhere, with statements like “Shower to Shower can be used all over your body.”
Advertisements for Johnson’s Baby Powder are even vaguer: “for baby, use after every bath and diaper change. For you, use anytime you want skin to feel soft, fresh and comfortable.” Speaking of babies, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against using talc-based powders, warning that babies can inhale the potent particles and suffer lung damage. Johnson & Johnson, it seems, doesn’t share the same concern.