Over the course of history, we humans have done some pretty unintelligent things. Some ideas we knew were not a great, while others may have started out as a good idea, until we found that we were really just causing ourselves harm. When I think about the latter, some of the most notable ideas that come to mind are bloodletting, tobacco use, and the use of lead makeup. I often wonder what ideas that we currently promote will be looked back upon in 50 years as very unintelligent and extremely harmful to mankind.

One of the things I think may end up on this list is the use of certain powder makeup. Lead makeup used to be all the rage in the late 1600s, and it is believed that Queen Elizabeth’s frequent use of this makeup may have caused her to suffer from lead poising, ultimately causing her death.1 Fast forward 400 years and makeup is as popular as ever. Currently, advertisers promote powdery makeup that feels light on the face, looks subtle, and is all-natural. The only problem with this idea is that this makeup often comes in powder form and may contain talc.

Wait a second—hasn’t powder containing talc been in the news lately?

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Recently, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the use of talcum powder and its link to ovarian cancer. It is believed that women who routinely used talcum powder in their genital areas were unknowingly increasing their risk of developing ovarian cancer.  It has been difficult to identify the extent of the risk, as research often relies on subjective history of women trying to remember how often they used talcum powder over the span of many years.

The American Cancer Society does not give a definitive answer as to whether or not talcum powder directly causes ovarian cancer, citing that some human studies suggested an increased risk of cancer while others did not. Similarly, in laboratory findings, some studies found that talc caused tumor formation while others did not.2

However, one article from the International Journal of Gynecologic Cancer suggests that talc use increases the risk of ovarian cancer between 30% and 60% in “almost all well-designed studies”. They calculated the attributable risk as being 29%. Therefore, if all women stopped using talc, there would be an expected 29% decrease in cases of ovarian cancer.3

I find this information extremely unsettling. Now that there is an indication that talc may be responsible for causing ovarian cancer, talc is being replaced with corn starch in these powders. However, many makeup brands continue to use this potentially harmful ingredient.

I was horrified the other day when I flipped my makeup over to look at the ingredients and realized the main ingredient was talc. I had just applied the makeup to my entire face, around my mouth, and under my nose. And given that it is a powder, I am sure that I have breathed it in on a daily basis for the past year or so. Sometimes, I applied it multiple times a day. I am extremely concerned that I have caused damage to my lungs, my airway, and my nasal passages.  I firmly believe that we should start looking into the potential dangers of continual use of talc-containing makeup. Further studies may find the use of talc makeup is in fact safe, but until these studies are performed I am going to stay away from any and all talc products. I hope we can gain more concrete use about its safety before it is too late.

Jillian Knowles, MMS, PA-C is an emergency medicine physician assistant in the Philadelphia area.  


  1. Medical Bag. Queen Elizabeth I. Published September 27, 2012. Accessed December 30, 2016.
  2. American Cancer Society. Talcum Powder and Cancer. Updated May 3, 2016. Accessed December 30, 2016.
  3. Ness R. Does talc exposure cause ovarian cancer?: IGCS-0015 Ovarian Cancer. Int J Gynecol Cancer. 2015;25 Suppl 1:51.