In 2019, the beauty industry had reached a value of $532 billion and is projected to rapidly rise in the coming years.1 Personal care products are benefiting from targeted pricing, social media and companies aiming at sustainable alternatives. In other words, personal care products and cosmetics is big business.
At least since the times of ancient Egypt, women have been using products to enhance or alter their appearance.2 With this long-lasting growth, toxins such as formaldehyde, parabens and phthalates have made their way into personal care products.3
One compound you may not have considered toxic is talcum powder. One of the largest companies to sell talcum is Johnson & Johnson, which launched their iconic baby powder in 1894. By 2018, their total annual sales were more than $81.6 billion.4
What’s in Your Makeup May Give You Cancer
The powdery ingredient that the beauty industry uses can be listed as talcum powder, talcum, cosmetic talc, or magnesium silicate. Talc is a mineral, which when crushed is particularly useful in a wide variety of products.5 The unique qualities include the ability to absorb odor, lubricate and resist high temperatures. This made it useful in cosmetics, powders, crayons, children’s toys and even in roofing materials and polished rice.
The New York Times reports it’s also used in pharmaceutical pills, supplements and chewing gum.6 Groups that test children’s toys have found it in crime scene kits and crayons. Until the 1990s, it was used in surgical gloves and condoms.
A recent study published in Environmental Health Insights by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has once again linked personal care products talcum containing with exposure to asbestos.7 One of the products tested in the study was designed specifically for use by children. So how does asbestos, a known carcinogen, contaminate talc?
Asbestos is the term given to six naturally occurring minerals that are made of flexible fibers. When these fibers are inhaled or ingested, they can be permanently trapped in your body. Over time they trigger inflammation and eventually genetic damage that can lead to an aggressive form of cancer called mesothelioma.
In nature, asbestos minerals are found with talc minerals so, during processing, there’s a significant risk talcum can become contaminated with asbestos. When you think of asbestos you might first imagine home insulation, as that’s where it was primarily used for consumers. But the qualities of the product made it useful to the military, heavy construction and shipbuilding, as well. It became part of the beauty industry due to its ties to talcum.
Talcum can be found in over 2,000 personal care products including blush, face and body powders and eyeshadow. In their study, the EWG found 14.2% of the cosmetics that were tested were contaminated with asbestos. Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., was one researcher in the study and scientist at EWG. She spoke to ZME Science about the results saying:8
“The prevalence of asbestos found in cosmetics from this study is troubling given that most people don’t expect asbestos to be in their make-up, especially not in children’s toy make-up. This highlights the lack of adequate screening of talc.”
Baby Powder Is Dangerous for Babies
The lack of adequate screening places the public at risk. The Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrances Association, which represents the personal care product industry, stated in 1976 that all cosmetic products sold in the US “should be free from detectable amounts of asbestos according to their standards.”9
But, as ZME Science points out, testing is not standardized, and this became a loophole the industry exploited.10 Additionally, the testing that is done on talcum powder is voluntary by the manufacturers and the FDA has no authority to recall products when contamination is found.
The testing the industry uses currently is not sensitive enough to detect contamination, which is why the EWG is lobbying for a more reliable method to be used across the U.S. Talcum powder is the main ingredient in Johnson & Johnsons core baby product. However, while most parents would presume it’s safe for babies because it’s labeled for babies, the American Academy of Pediatrics has warned parents of baby powder dangers since 1969.11
In March 2020, the FDA released the results of a year-long study in which they tested 52 cosmetic products and found nine to be contaminated with asbestos.12 One of those products was Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder. Three others were makeup sold by Claire’s and the remaining five were makeup sold by City Color.
The FDA (17.3%) and EWG (14.2%) tests found a similar percentage of personal care products were contaminated with asbestos. Another study published in 2014, found anthophyllite and tremolite, two asbestos minerals, in one brand of talc tested for litigation after a woman died from mesothelioma.13
The study did not name the brand of talc the woman had used for years, but the researchers wrote that a study published in 1976 found this same brand of talc had the highest level of asbestos of 20 commercial brands tested.14 The scientists in the study published in 2014, wrote:15
“Furthermore, we have traced the asbestos in the talc to the mines from which it originated, into the milled grades, into the product, and finally into the lung and lymph nodes of the users of those products, including one woman who developed mesothelioma.
Based on the testing and re-testing conducted by the authors, it is evident that this product line has been consistently contaminated with asbestos tainted talc derivatives. The amount of asbestos was variable based on the time of manufacture and the talc source.
In conclusion, we found that a specific brand of talcum powder contained identifiable asbestos fibers with the potential to be released into the air and inhaled during normal personal talcum powder application.
We also found that asbestos fibers consistent with those found in the same cosmetic talc product were present in the lungs and lymph node tissues of a woman who used this brand of talc powder and developed and died from mesothelioma.”
Johnson & Johnson Aware of the Issue Since 1957
In a 1995 letter to the editor published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, two physicians wrote of the health risks women faced when their partners used condoms covered in talcum powder, namely infertility and ovarian cancer.16 The doctor’s interest in talc began when they found it was an unwanted contaminant in 70% of the silicone gel breast implants they evaluated.
Johnson & Johnson was well aware of the health risks associated with talcum powder long before this. It wasn’t until the company was sued by over 11,000 plaintiffs, who all claimed the baby powder had asbestos, that the full extent of their knowledge came to light.
In the documents the company had to be forced to release, it was revealed that they were aware of tainted samples in 1957 and 1958 when they asked an external lab to do an analysis.17 As reported by Reuters, when the FDA questioned Johnson & Johnson about asbestos contamination in the talc, the company issued a statement in which they denied any knowledge, saying:18
“Our fifty years of research knowledge in this area indicates that there is no asbestos contained in the powder manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.”
Despite indisputable evidence that asbestos is linked to cancer,19 and over 40 years of evidence that talcum powder can be contaminated with asbestos,20,21,22 some experts continue to waffle on whether talcum powder can be dangerous.
For example, the American Cancer Society acknowledges that talc with asbestos is “able to cause cancer if it is inhaled.” But continues: “The evidence about asbestos-free talc is less clear.”23
They make no mention of the lack of standardized testing, how to determine if the talc you’re buying has been tested and go on to say: “There is very little evidence at this time that any other forms of cancer are linked with consumer use of talcum powder.”24
Company Uses Pandemic as a Reason to Pull Baby Powder
A study released in January 2020 pulled data from four cohort studies of 252,745 women. The results made headlines because the scientists asserted there “was not a statistically significant association between use of powder in the genital area and incident ovarian cancer.”25
However, when carefully read,26 the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN) found the participants were not asked about the type of powder used (talc or cornstarch) and the researchers acknowledge “specific exposure windows could not be examined, nor could type of powder used” [limitations].
Yet, the authors extrapolated the results to all powder, including talc. The NWHN goes on to reveal several more discrepancies that do not warrant the researchers’ conclusion.
Another study in the International Journal of Toxicology calls the talc and asbestos relationship “commonly misunderstood”27 and “Industry specifications state that cosmetic-grade talc must contain no detectable fibrous, asbestos minerals.”
Johnson & Johnson continues to assert that talcum powder is safe, and their No. 1 reason is because “talc has been used for centuries.”28 Then, in February 2020, the company announced they would voluntarily take their baby powder off the shelf in the U.S. and Canada.29
USA Today reported the company did this “to focus on products with a higher priority during the coronavirus pandemic.” In other words, the company is using the pandemic response as a smoke screen to pull baby powder from the shelves.
The plan is to only remove it from the U.S. and Canadian market, which represent 0.5% of their total consumer health business.30 Forbes reports this market was $13.8 billion in 2018.31
“Demand for talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in North America has been declining due in large part to changes in consumer habits and fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising.”
Take Care With Your Personal Care Products
Unfortunately, many still believe that if a product is sold in the stores, it is likely safe for use. But, as this fight to remove cancer-causing talcum powder blatantly shows, manufacturers are willing to pay millions to make billions. The thousands of pending lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson are a reminder that it’s a buyer beware market when it comes to personal care products.
Women may be exposed to an average of 168 chemicals daily and men, 85.32 Many of these have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicities, asthma, allergies and other health problems.
There is no safety testing required before these personal care products hit the grocery store shelf and few chemicals have been banned in the U.S. since the industry is largely self-regulated. In other words, it’s like the fox guarding the hen house.
You do have choices and the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep33 database can help you make those choices. It contains a list of ingredients and safety ratings for close to 75,000 cosmetics and personal care products. This is an important step, since your skin is an excellent drug delivery system. What goes on your body is as important as what goes in your mouth.
Products bearing the “USDA 100% Organic” seal are among your safest bets if you want to avoid potentially toxic ingredients. Be aware that products boasting “all-natural” labels can still contain harmful chemicals, so be sure to check the full list of ingredients.
Better yet, simplify your routine and make your own products. A slew of lotions and hair treatments can be eliminated with a jar of coconut oil, for example, to which you can add a high-quality essential oil, if you like, for scent.
When it comes to talcum powder, my recommendation is to avoid it altogether. Also remember that adult women are not the ones most commonly exposed to talc. Most parents generously apply baby talcum powder to their baby’s bottom at each diaper change, exposing both the parent and baby to inhaling the powder.