Study Finds No “Statistically Significant” Association Between Genital Powders and Risk for Ovarian Cancer
If you’ve been paying attention to the many headlines about genital powder and ovarian cancer over the past few years, you know that there are many ongoing and contentious legal battles currently taking place across the country. But a new study published in JAMA is shedding light on the potential risks — or lack thereof — of genital powders and ovarian cancer. Specifically, researchers found that women who had ever used genital powder had an 8 percent increased risk for developing ovarian cancer compared to women who had never used it. Compared to the overall lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer (1.3 percent in the U.S.), this increase is considered to be statistically small.
In the largest study of its kind to date, researchers pooled data of more than 250,000 women who self-reported using powder in the genital area. The data came from four different long-term, U.S.-based studies and found no significant link between the use of powder in the genital area and risk of developing ovarian cancer. Per study findings, there was also no association between frequency of use and an increased risk for ovarian cancer. The researchers made clear to note that the study did not examine talc-based powders specifically, but rather, all genital powders (researchers did not differentiate between the type of powder women said they used, whether it was talcum-based powder, cornstarch-based, or a combination).
According to NPR, the study did find that the increased risk of ovarian cancer from using powders on their genitals among women who had not had a hysterectomy or tubal litigation was 13 percent — an estimated 0.15 percent increased risk by the age of 70, but that’s still statistically considered a very small increase.
“The results are consistent with previous results showing a possible positive association between genital powder use and ovarian cancer, though our estimates indicate a smaller risk than some previous studies observed,” explains study author Katie M. O’Brien. “The fact that the association may be limited to women with intact reproductive tracts is biologically plausible, as both a uterus and open tubes are required for there to be a direct physical path between the application site and the ovaries.”
This study design is also important because, in addition to the large scale, researchers asked women about genital powder use before developing ovarian cancer. Other studies on the topic have focused on women who are already diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which is thought to increase the chance of recall bias. Still, all studies on this topic present significant challenges for many reasons, not least, of which because “it’s a super sensitive and emotional topic,” explains Konstantin Zakashansky, director of gynecologic oncology at Mount Sinai West Hospital in New York City.
“Most of the previously reported studies are observational [and] work retrospectively. You basically go to ovarian cancer patients and ask ‘did you use talc?’, so it’s all based on these patients recollections therefore may be subjected to recall bias,” Zakashansky explains. “The gold standard in determining association between the cause and effect is a prospective randomized study, but it’s not ethical to have 100 patients using talc to see how many of them are going to develop cancer in 20 years. That’s never going to happen. So this may be the best prospectively collected [data] we will have available.”
A statement from the American Cancer Society, given to USA Today cited limitations in the study design. Attributed to Susan Gapstur, senior vice president of behavioral and epidemiology research with the American Cancer Society, the statement noted that the study’s results are not definitive, and that previous studies that use less bias-prone methodology have provided more mixed results.
“While results from this study showed no evidence of a statistically significant association between genital powder use and ovarian cancer risk overall, some of the subgroup findings are suggestive of a potential link,” the statement reads.
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