Is Baby Powder Safe? Here’s What Parents Need to Know

Here’s the safety scoop on baby powder, including talc-free and organic options.
ByRachel Morris
August 23, 2019
hand with baby powder
Image: iStock

Baby powder has helped parents keep their little ones dry and comfortable for over a century. The historical changing table staple has a knack for absorbing moisture and reducing the chance of painful diaper rash. But as more research has become available, modern-day parents are asking a key question: Is baby powder safe? And it turns out, there’s something to their concern. Read on to learn why baby power could pose risks and what alternatives experts suggest for protecting baby’s delicate skin.

Is Baby Powder Safe?

The fresh scent of baby powder is so closely associated with early childhood that it can be surprising to learn that the experts we talked to actually don’t recommend that parents use it.

Baby powder is traditionally made from talc, a soft mineral composed of magnesium, silicon and oxygen that, when made into a powder, is excellent at absorbing moisture. Talc can be naturally found in the earth near asbestos and become contaminated with the substance, which is known to cause cancer when inhaled.

The dangers of baby powder have actually been in question since the 1960s, with people worrying over a possible link between asbestos-contaminated baby powder and cancer. Over the years, in fact, thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Johnson & Johnson largely by women with ovarian cancer who claim that long-term use of baby powder in their genital region lead to the disease.

So does baby powder cause cancer? There have been a number of studies in recent decades, but the findings are inconclusive and often conflicting. A 2014 study found that perineal powder does not appear to increase the risk of ovarian cancer, for example, while a 2016 case-control study—which relied on interviews about participants’ use of talcum powder over the years—suggested that talc powder could increase risk by 33 percent. Still, experts say the alarm may be unwarranted. “There is little convincing evidence that baby or talcum powder causes ovarian cancer,” says Sarah M. Temkin, MD, director of gynecologic oncology at Anne Arundel Medical Center’s Gynecologic Specialty Surgeons in Annapolis, Maryland. “The controversy arose from the type of studies used to try to demonstrate a risk, called case-control studies, which are generally biased. Prospective studies—which are the better type of study to answer this sort of question—have shown either little or no risk from talcum powder.”

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So what does all this mean for the safety of your baby? Here’s what parents need to know: Back in 1976, the trade association representing the personal care products industry created voluntary safety standards that said all talc used in cosmetic products (including baby powder) shouldn’t have any detectable amount of asbestos in it. A 2010 FDA survey found that the cosmetic products they tested containing talc—including baby powder, eye shadow and blush—were indeed free of any asbestos fibers. But because they could only test a select number of products, their findings don’t guarantee that all talc-containing cosmetic products are free from contamination.

Nowadays you can find talc-free baby powder made with cornstarch instead. But while it solves the safety concern of possible asbestos in baby powder, it still doesn’t make baby powder safe. That’s because when it comes to baby powder dangers, the top concern now is the fact that particles of powder can get into the air when the bottle is shaken, and babies may then breathe in those particles.

“Inhaling baby powder can irritate the lungs and potentially cause respiratory complications like breathing problems, irritation or a cough,” says Sophie Balk, MD, an attending pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health. Inhaling baby powder is problematic for any baby, since their tiny lungs are still developing, but it’s especially dangerous for babies who have respiratory issues or are at a higher risk for respiratory trouble, such as premature infants. If too much powder—even from pure cornstarch—is breathed in, babies may develop lung damage or even choke.

Safe Baby Powder Alternatives

Parents have a safer baby powder alternative for keeping their little ones comfortable, clean, and rash-free between diaper changes: diaper cream.

“Almost all diaper creams are petroleum or zinc oxide-based. These act as a barrier between the skin and the diaper, preventing the skin from coming in contact with stool and urine,” says Pauline Bridgeman, MD, a pediatrician at University of Missouri Health Care. And they work! Research shows that zinc oxide-based products are actually more effective than talcum powder for reducing diaper rash.

If baby’s skin is already irritated and raw, Bridgeman recommends washing your child’s bottom under running water before applying the cream. This prevents the need for excess (and painful!) wiping and is also the best way to remove small particles of feces, which can irritate the skin if they get locked in with the diaper cream.

The bottom line when it comes to preventing diaper rash: Skip the baby powder, even those that are organic or cornstarch-based. “These aren’t meant to be in the lungs,” says Balk. “This is a preventable risk, so why use something that could harm your baby?”

Published August 2019

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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