In a new study, researchers have linked the genital use of talc-based powders to invasive ovarian cancers in African American women.
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A multi-disciplinary team of scientists from ten different institutions, including Duke University and the University of Virginia, used data from the African American Cancer Epidemiology Study (AACES) to arrive at their results. Looking at 584 women who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, along with 745 women who were cancer-free, the researchers discovered that African American women who reported using genital powders frequently were about 44% more likely to have developed epithelial ovarian cancers than women who did not use talc.
Risks were even increased among women who used baby powder in non-genital applications. These women were at a 28% increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. Importantly, the study found a “dose-response relationship” between talcum powder and cancer. In other words, the more a woman used baby powder the higher her risk of developing ovarian cancer became.
Over the last three decades, numerous studies have found a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. But the 44% increase in cancer risk is a particularly strong finding. In 2015, for example, a paper published in the journal Epidemiology found that women who reported routine genital use of baby powders were 33% more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Most recent studies have found similar results, averaging around a 30% increased risk.
Dr. Joellen Schildkraut, who led the recent study on African American women, thinks race may play a major role in why some studies have described lower increased risks than her own work. Talcum powder use is particularly common in African American communities, but this is one of the first studies to look specifically at the product’s risks in black women, who are historically underrepresented in epidemiological studies. As just one example, a 2013 study published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research included 30 white participants for every 1 black participant.
In an interview with Reuters Health, Schildkraut said that studying a large group of black women, rather than women from other races, actually made her study more powerful than previous research, which failed to take racial differences in powder use into account. “I was a cynic [about the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer] until these recent studies came out,” she told reporters. “As you look across all these studies, I would say, why use it? It’s an avoidable risk for ovarian cancer.”
A 2015 study conducted in Los Angeles found that while around 30% of white and Hispanic women reported using talcum powders, nearly 44% of African American women used the products. Schildkraut’s study found even higher rates of usage. In fact, many of the cancer-free women who were interviewed for the study, nearly 53%, reported using talc frequently. Powder use, as you would expect if talc and ovarian cancer are causally connected, was even more common among African American women with cancer. Nearly 63% of the cancer patients reported dusting themselves with talcum powders regularly.
These racial disparities in baby powder usage may not be random. In more than 1,000 lawsuits, ovarian cancer patients have accused Johnson & Johnson, America’s primary manufacturer of talc-based powders, of marketing the product aggressively to black women.
Even more troubling, women say the company only ramped up its advertising in African American communities after observing a drop in sales among white women, many of whom were likely scared off by the link to ovarian cancer.