Let’s try something together. Close your eyes and think of the word “Talc”. If we’re from the same generation, I bet you’re reminded of the same pleasant smell now, and perhaps of a feeling of softness and freshness. Talc-based baby powder is undoubtedly one of the products you could find in almost every home when we were children, and as we grew up, many women continued to use the product as adults.
But the fresh and clean image has begun to crack in the face of a wave of lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson that produces baby powder, from women who used it and had ovarian cancer. Last year, the U.S. FDA, found asbestos in samples of baby talc and other products, including in makeup for girls. In May this year, Johnson & Johnson announced it is discontinuing its talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in the United States and Canada. The company explained a declining demand was impacted by "misinformation around the safety" and the “constant barrage of litigation advertising”, and promised to defend the product and “unfounded allegations” against it, and will continue to sell the product in other countries.
We’ll try to shed some light on this story to help you understand whether talc in baby powder and makeup poses a health risk according to scientific studies, and what asbestos, which we all know is linked to cancer, has got to do with it.
Talc (talcum) is a natural mineral mined from the earth - mainly in China, and also in Brazil, India, the United States and other places. Fine talc powder absorbs moisture and can prevent rashes. Talc is used not only in baby powder but also by many adults, including women who use it in the genital area and to prevent chafing between the legs. It’s also a relatively common ingredient in powdery makeup products such as eyeshadow, blush, foundation, bronzer and more.
How can asbestos get into the talc in the first place? The answer is very simple. Asbestos is another natural mineral, and it is often found in the same mines and in proximity to talc. Unfortunately, asbestos is a human carcinogen, a substance that can cause cancer. Asbestos fibers have been used in the past as insulating material and for a variety of other industrial uses, but it is well known for decades that inhaling asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer many years after exposure, as well as mesothelioma cancer. About ten years ago, the International Cancer Research Agency (IARC) determined that asbestos also causes cancer of the larynx (voice box) and ovary . The American Cancer Society links between exposure to asbestos and these cancers as well .
It seems that obtaining completely pure talc can be challenging. A Reuters investigation citing Johnson's internal documents claimed that the company’s executives were concerned of small amounts of asbestos sometimes found in the company’s raw talc and finished powders, from at least 1971 to the early 2000s.
What about the regulation? Isn’t asbestos-free talc supervised by the authorities? You might be surprised to find that under U.S. law, cosmetics manufacturers may release new products to the market without FDA’s review or approval (except for color additives), and are not required to share safety information with the FDA. As part of its limited authority, the FDA nonetheless conducted independent laboratory tests on asbestos in talc, and in March 2020 published very disturbing findings . The FDA’s survey included 52 cosmetic products containing talc, selected to represent a variety of product types and price levels, including popular products promoted on social networks and children's products. According to the FDA, asbestos was found in 9 of the samples, and only 43 of the samples were asbestos-free. The nine products which samples tested positive for asbestos were: Johnson & Johnson talc-based baby powder, various City Color makeup products by Beauty Plus Global, Claire's Stores Jojo Siwa makeup set for girls, and other Claire's makeup products .
It is important to make it clear that the existence of asbestos in the particular sample of these particular products does not mean that all the products by these brands contain asbestos. On the other hand, this obviously does not mean that other talc-containing products which have not been tested are asbestos-free. What the FDA’s survey does demonstrate is that talc is sometimes contaminated with asbestos, a fact that must be taken into account when using talc-containing products. The FDA intends to review 50 more products during 2020 and we will update when the results are released in early 2021 (follow us here).
In response to the FDA test results, Johnson & Johnson insisted that the product was safe and contained no asbestos according to its testing, but the company nonetheless voluntarily recalled 33,000 bottles of baby powder.
Johnson's and Johnson's talc made headlines even earlier. In July 2018, a U.S. court ruled that the company should pay $4.69 billion to 22 women who had claimed the product caused them to have ovarian cancer. Court rulings against the company in other cases were overturned as the company appealed the verdicts. But the wave of lawsuits continues and the company is facing around 19,000 lawsuits related to its talc baby powders.
Some of the lawsuits claimed that talc has caused women who used it in their genital area to develop ovarian cancer. Unlike asbestos, which can undisputedly cause cancer, scientific studies on the link between exposure to talc and cancer have been inconclusive.
The International Cancer Research Agency classifies perineal use of talc-based body powder as a possible human carcinogen . According to the US National Cancer Institute, the weight of evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer .
The most extensive study on the subject was published in January 2020, and included data gathered from 252,745 American women, of which 38% reported using powder in the genital area . During 11 years of follow-up, 2,168 of the participating women developed ovarian cancer. The incidence of the disease among powder users was a little bit higher than among women who never used it. However, the estimated risk difference to develop ovarian cancer by the age of 70 was only 0.09%. This small increase in the risk does not represent a statistically significant association between using the powder and developing the disease. Having said that, the study had several limitations. First of all, it included mostly white women. Second, the researchers couldn’t tell which type of powder women used: pure talc, talc contaminated with asbestos, or talc alternatives such as cornstarch.
The European regulation permits the usage of talc in cosmetics as long as powdery products intended to be used for children under 3 years of age are labeled with the warning “keep powder away from children's nose and mouth”.
Online search for talc-based baby powder shows that European retailers continue to offer the product.
You can still get Johnson’s talc-based baby powder in the U.S. too until the current inventory sold through retailers runs out.
The uncertainty around using talc comes from the fact that products containing talc sometimes still test positive for asbestos, which is a known carcinogen. Adding to this is the inconclusive science on the potential risk posed by using talc in the genital area.
If you are concerned by these potential risks you could simply avoid using talc-based baby powder. A possible alternative is cornstarch based powder (assuming it doesn’t contain unknown fragrance ingredients that may also be unsafe). When using cornstarch baby powder, as well as talc-based baby powder, remember that aspiration of the powder by infants is hazardous and must be carefully prevented [8, 9, 10].
As the FDA survey demonstrated, asbestos can sometimes be found also in talc-containing makeup products. If you’re worried about that, you can avoid specific powdery makeup brands that list talc as an ingredient, such as certain eyeshadows, blushes, foundations, bronzers and more.
If you feel you could use an extra pair of eyes to quickly check the ingredient list for you, we'd be extremely happy to invite you to use the Clearya iPhone app, Android app, and Chrome extension. Clearya automatically alerts on unsafe ingredients in daily products while you shop online.
Disclaimer: the content in this blog post is provided for general information, and does not substitute any medical advice by your own doctor or another health care professional. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for questions or comments.