Is Talcum Powder Safe For Babies?

Should You Be Concerned With Using Talcum Powder On Your Baby?

Is Baby Powder Safe To Use On My Baby?

Updated June 18, 2019
Author: Daniel Gala

It might sound like a rhetorical question, but, sadly, it isn’t.

“Is baby powder safe for my baby?” is a question all parents should ask before using popular products such as Johnson’s Baby Powder on their infant children.

The reason this is not a rhetorical question is because the answer, according to experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), is a resounding, “No.”

“Do not use baby or talcum powders on the baby,” the AAP website currently lists first under “Suffocation Prevention” on its parents’ checklist for making a baby’s room safe, last updated in January 2019. “If inhaled, talcum-containing powders can cause severe lung damage and breathing problems in babies.”

Pediatric experts around the globe are in solid agreement with the AAP advice.

“The use of talcum powder is incorrectly part of the traditional care of infants,” a 2011 article in the Italian Journal of Pediatrics states. “Its acute aspiration is a very dangerous condition in childhood.”

While lawsuits alleging that talcum-powder products such as Johnson’s Baby Powder can cause cancer after years of use justifiably have dominated recent headlines, long before today’s talc-cancer lawsuits, Johnson & Johnson faced controversy over a completely different danger posed by its flagship product: baby-powder aspiration.

Sadly, despite decades of warnings issued by researchers and health-care professionals, baby-powder aspiration remains an underpublicized risk facing babies and parents to this day, and, astoundingly, multibillion-dollar conglomerates like Johnson & Johnson still are permitted to market these products as safe for use on infants, with the Johnson’s Baby Powder website even emphasizing the “clean, classic scent”, implying the product is safe—even pleasant—to inhale.

As the 2011 article in the Italian Journal of Pediatrics states in translation, “Although the use of baby powder has been discouraged from many others and the reports of its accidental inhalation have been ever more rare, sometimes new cases, with several fatalities, have been reported.”

But what is it about baby powder that makes it so dangerous to babies?

Baby Powder Aspiration

While the recent talc-cancer lawsuits have focused primarily on allegations that years of exposure to talcum-powder products can cause ovarian cancer and mesothelioma, the risks that baby powders pose to babies are much more short term, but no less fatal. Chief among these risks, according to a number of pediatric health organizations, is baby-powder aspiration.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “[a]spiration means to draw in or out using a sucking motion” including “[b]reathing in a foreign object.” Hence, baby powder aspiration simply means the inhalation of baby powder. As commonplace as that might sound to those accustomed to seeing plumes of white talcum powder suspended in the air over changing tables or in locker rooms, baby-powder aspiration can have deadly consequences, especially for infants and babies.

As a sidebar to a 1991 article in the BMJ [formerly the British Medical Journal] states, “Talcum powder can cause severe respiratory symptoms in infants; its use should be discouraged and containers should carry a warning and have child proof caps.”

Sadly, the potentially deadly risks of baby-powder inhalation have been known for over half a century, and, while public-education campaigns seem to have had some positive impact on reducing the overall number of cases as well as fatalities, instances of baby-powder aspiration, including those resulting in deaths, continue to occur. Perhaps most egregiously, companies like Johnson & Johnson continue to spend millions marketing these products for use on babies and infants, while lawmakers and regulators refuse to force companies to provide basic safety measures, such as childproof caps, that healthcare professionals have been calling for for decades.

A Brief History of Baby-Powder Aspiration
Doctors have been aware of the potentially fatal risk of talcum-powder inhalation to infants as far back at least as the 1960s. In an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January 1962, researchers identified a fatal case of talcum-powder aspiration:

The talcum powder container, often a favorite plaything of small children, may be a source of tragedy in the home. The case reported below demonstrates a rapidly fatal course in a twenty-two-month-old child, who aspirated talcum powder while playing with such a container.

Attention to the issue of baby-powder aspiration peaked in the early-to-mid 1980s, with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) leading the way in sounding the alarm about the hazards associated with baby-powder use, especially the dangers of baby powder aspiration. In 1981, the AAP medical journal Pediatrics published under the alarming headline “Baby Powder—A Hazard!” an article citing data that, in one study, one in five children hospitalized for baby-powder inhalation had died from the condition.

“A recent report reviewed more than 25 cases of talcum powder aspiration with a mortality rate of 20%,” the Pediatrics article said.

In a different piece by the same authors, also appearing in 1981 under the title, “WARNING: AN EPIDEMIC OF BABY POWDER ASPIRATION”, it was reported that over a six-month period at the Nassau County Medical Center Poison Control Center, approximately 1% of all calls for children under the age of five were for baby-powder aspiration.

While numerous research papers examining baby-powder aspiration continued to appear in pediatric medical journals through the mid-1980s, since that time research into the topic has tapered off, possibly because rates of baby-powder aspiration were in decline thanks in large part to public-education campaigns. However, the concerns expressed by pediatric-health experts remain, and as the issue gains less and less prominence in the public consciousness there is concern that incidents of baby-powder aspiration by infants will begin to rise again.

To this day, the American Academy of Pediatrics continues to warn against the use of baby powders or talcum powders on babies. In the 4th Edition of its volume Pediatric Environmental Health , released December 2018, the AAP Council on Environmental Health continued to advise parents to keep talcum powders—included baby powder—away from infants.

Unfortunately, the efforts of knowledgeable experts like those at the AAP are all too often drowned out by the loud, flashy advertising campaigns of multibillion-dollar conglomerates like Johnson & Johnson, which continues to directly market its flagship Johnson’s Baby Powder for use on babies.

“[T]his baby powder formula glides over your baby’s skin and leaves it feeling delicately soft and dry while providing soothing comfort,” the Johnson’s Baby Powder website reads, emphasizing the “[c]lean, classic scent”; the “hypoallergenic” nature; and the “Clinically Proven Mildness [sic] formula…designed for baby’s delicate skin.”

Sources: from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (Last Updated 19 January 2019). Make Baby’s Room Safe: Parent Checklist

Matina, F. et al. (27 September 2011). Inhaled Surfactant in the treatment of accidental Talc Powder inhalation: a new case report. Italian Journal of Pediatrics (Accessed 20 June 2019). Aspiration

Pairaudeau, P W, et al. (18 May 1991). Inhalation of baby powder: an underappreciated hazard. BMJ. Volume 32

Molnar, J. et al. (4 January 1962). Fatal Aspiration of Talcum Powder by a Child—Report of a Case. New England Journal of Medicine

Mofenson, H. et al. (September 1986). Hazards of Baby Powder. Pediatrics. Volume 78 Issue 3

Mofenson, H. et al. (August 1981). Baby Powder—A Hazard! Pediatrics. Volume 68 Issue 2 (Accessed 20 June 2019). Baby Powder

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Legal Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as medical information or diagnosis. The sources of the information presented in the article have been researched and are linked within the article. Please seek out medical advice from a licensed medical professional if you are experiencing a problem with any of the drugs or devices mentioned in this article. 

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