In the News: Women using talcum powder every day may increase their risk of ovarian cancer

Alarming new research from Harvard Medical School published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention has suggested that women who use talcum power every day on their genitals are 40 per cent more likely to develop ovarian cancer.

Scientists suspect that powder particles applied every day to their genitals to keep fresh may travel to the ovaries and trigger a process of inflammation that encourages cancer cells to flourish. Previous studies have raised genuine concerns about the use of talc, but this latest finding indicates that the risks may be far greater than previously thought and the researchers have urged all women to stop using talc immediately.


The study, which involved more than 3,000 women, found that using talc just once a week increases risk of cancer by 36 per cent, rising to 41 per cent for those using talc every day. Laboratory tests show ovarian cells exposed to talc divide more rapidly – a common indication of cancer. The risks were even greater for women with a certain genetic profile. Women carrying a gene called GSTMI or glutathione S-transferase MI, but lacking a gene called glutathione S-transferase TI or GSTTI, were nearly three times more likely to develop tumours. Around one in ten Caucasian women is thought to have this genetic profile, increasing their risk sharply.


Talc is made from a mineral called hydrous magnesium silicate, or soapstone, which is then crushed, dried and milled to produce powder. Some experts believe this powder, which is also found in lipstick, paint and insecticide has chemical similarities to asbestos, which can cause a deadly form of lung cancer. (In addition, habitat destruction caused by illegal mining of the mineral has helped drive the Indian tiger to the brink of distinction.)


More than 6,000 women every year are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK. Risk factors include a family history of the disease, starting periods at a young age, and having already had breast cancer. Women who are overweight or use hormone replacement therapy are also thought to be more at risk. If you are worried about ovarian cancer then a simple ultrasound scan can give you peace of mind, do contact my clinic for details of how to be referred for this test. 


Women will often bring into my clinic supplements that they have already bought to ask my opinion of them. Shockingly, many of the supplements bought by mail order contain talc in the tablets. This raises two important points. One is that, as with food, you must read the label – it is not just enough to read the part that lists the vitamins and minerals that are in the supplement, you also have to read the ingredients list. The ingredients can include not only substances like talc but also artificial sweeteners and colourings, which I hope you would be avoiding in food. Secondly, it is better to buy supplements in capsule form than tablets. With tablets they have to include binders and bulking agents in order to make them into a solid form and your body has got to break that tablet down (some can be extremely hard) in order to obtain the benefit. With a capsule (and choose vegetable capsules instead of bovine gelatin, you can even get fish oil supplements in fish oil gelatin now e.g. Omega 3 Plus) it is possible to have them just filled with the essential nutrients and nothing else (the Natural Health Practice has supplements just like this). Also, with a capsule your body only has to ‘melt’ the capsule in order to release the nutrients rather than having to break down a hard tablet. 


Remember that you get what you pay for with supplements. It’s much better to pay a bit extra to get better quality, which means not only ‘no nasties’ added, but also better absorption because the minerals are in a more absorbable form.

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