If you didn't know, Johnson & Johnson just lost two major lawsuits, to the tune of $72 million and $55 million, over allegations that the company's baby powder causes cancer; thousands of others have filed suits claiming the same thing. Bad news if you're a four-time NBA MVP trying to bring the first professional championship to Cleveland since 1964.
The offending ingredient -- and, naturally, J&J disputes the "offending" part -- is talcum powder, an ingredient used in many bathroom products for its uncanny ability to keep skin fresh and dry. The downside, potentially, to that fresh and dry feeling: ovarian cancer.
Plenty of people use talc-based products down below for their moisture-wicking qualities, and to prevent irritation and infections. But is it a short-term health fix that could lead to cancer down the line? And, since the product in question has "baby" right there in the name, is there a reason to be concerned that parents are putting a carcinogen on their infants?
So, two lawsuits mean this stuff causes cancer, right?
"The real answer is that we don't really know," says Miami-based obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Jason James. "There is no definitive proof for or against, and if we look at the scientific data it is unclear."
But a recent study, released after the most recent lawsuit's verdict, found that applying the product to genitals, underwear, and sanitary napkins could increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer by a third. Yet another found talc to be associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer in African-American women. The American Cancer Society, for its part, acknowledges the public concern, but stops short of saying talcum powder causes ovarian cancer.
Despite the new evidence, there are still doubts, since "scientific consensus emerges over time, especially in cases like this, where the results have been somewhat inconsistent," as the National Cancer Institute's head of epidemiology told Reuters. The jury is still out, in other words -- except in real-world terms, it isn't, and with other lawsuits still pending, the verdict on talc may be decided in a court rather than a lab.
Maybe you should steer clear just in case
Johnson & Johnson maintains that its baby powder meets the highest quality, purity, and compliance standards," and without a smoking-gun study, it's the company's word against that of the consumers, which can make for a sticky legal battleground.
"I'm a little surprised that Johnson lost this lawsuit," admits Dr. James. "I think if they knew it was unsafe they'd probably have recommended all this time not to use it. If you look at the scientific literature over the last decades, there has always been a question of the association of talc product in genital area and ovarian cancer. But we don't know 100% the cause and effect between."
That's why the gynecologist recommends that his patients -- many of whom have been asking about the safety of baby powder after the lawsuit -- indeed chuck it away.
"It always kind of bothered me, the idea of using talc and the potential it could be causing harm, especially when being used day in, day out," he says. "It's better to be in an abundance of safety, especially when there's a good alternative out there."