For years, parents have used baby powder or other similar talcum powders as a drying agent to protect their children’s delicate skin from diaper rash, or to prevent sweating or chafing. However, the talc that makes up the bulk of these powders contains small particles that have a very similar shape to cancer-causing asbestos particles. Some of the talc even contains asbestos itself.
Talc is a naturally-occurring mineral, one so soft it can be scratched by a fingernail. This property makes it ideal for use as a powder. However, it can also make talc dangerous. Industrial-grade talc can contain silica and asbestos, both of which can cause severe lung problems if inhaled. In fact, talc miners have a much higher likelihood of developing lung cancer than the general population.
But even the more refined, cosmetic-grade talc used in baby powder can be dangerous. Some studies have suggested a link between talc and lung as well as ovarian cancer. A 1971 study showed that 75% of the ovarian tumors examined contained particles of talc. Even when the talc contains no asbestos or asbestos-like fibers, it has still been found to cause tumors in rats. If inhaled directly, it can cause aspiration pneumonia or granulomas, inflamed nodules of immune cells that may or may not be malignant. A resolution to regulate the asbestos-like particles in cosmetic-grade talc was drafted by the FDA in 1973, but never ruled on.
Since baby powders are easily inhaled by both the child and the parent or guardian, doctors are now recommending that parents use ointments to treat diaper rash. However, for those set on baby powder, there are readily-available alternative powders made from corn starch, rather than talc.