Media Release 25 February 2016 - No link between talc and cancer

Professor Andrew Shelling Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology University of Auckland

This has been a topic of discussion for the past 30-40 years, and has reappeared in the past few days with the recent news that "Johnson & Johnson Ordered To Pay Millions After Baby Powder Linked To Ovarian Cancer".
The research on this topic has been inconclusive to date. First, there has been little research done at all, which makes it difficult to make a judgment on the validity of the claims. Second, the research to date has been contradictory. Most of the studies used to do this are called case-control studies that rely on those with ovarian cancer trying to recall something from the past, compared to the experiences of women of a similar age and background without ovarian cancer. As reported by a UK support group People may not accurately remember how much talc they used in the past, and women with ovarian cancer may be more likely to remember using talc than women who don’t have cancer. This might skew the results". These types of case/control studies do not always give us the most reliable data. When prospective (forward looking) or cohort studies are done, which are more reliable, there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the two. Third, where a link has been reported, there is not a clear relationship between the amount of talc and the incidence of ovarian cancer. Animal studies have also been negative. Therefore, there is concern about the reliability of the research that has been done to date, leading to most researchers in the area referring to the link between talc powder and ovarian cancer being “inconclusive".

Even if the link was to be real, then the affect is very small, and is very minor compared to other risk factors such as aging, genetics and the well established link with reproductive risk factors. These reproductive risks mainly revolve around the number of menstrual cycles a woman will have, and include things such as having a baby, the oral contraceptive pill, infertility, age at puberty and age at menopause.

Given the uncertainty in the medical literature, it was surprising that the USA court ruled against Johnson & Johnson. I’m sure that we haven’t heard the end of this.

So what is the best advice. I think it is best summarised by the following quote by Katherine Taylor, chief executive of Ovarian Cancer Action, speaking to The Huffington Post UK: "If you’re currently using talc, don’t panic. Given evidence is inconsistent we do advocate a 'better safe than sorry' attitude and advise that women using talc on their genitals stop doing so.

The following two news stories best summarise what most people in the field think about the topic.

And the last link is a summary of my interview with TV3.