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IS TALC POWDER DANGEROUS — The Dust That Won't Settle

Updated: May 12, 2023

Makeup powder flying off from makeup brushes
Photo by Marcelo Moreira, Pexels

By now, you must be living under a rock if you don’t know all about J & J baby powder debacle. After decades of knowingly selling baby powder with asbestos contaminated talc as the main ingredient, J & J is finally facing the music with all the lawsuits they have been hit with in the past few years. So what is talc and what is the problem with it, anyway? And is talc powder dangerous? Talc is a natural, soft, powdery mineral that is used as the main ingredient in thousands of powder—based cosmetic and personal care products, like baby powder, face powder, eyeshadows, etc. The problem has never been with talc itself, but with its contamination by naturally—occurring asbestos fibers. Asbestos is carcinogenic when inhaled and there is no safe concentration of asbestos exposure. So if talc is not properly purified and tested to ensure that it is asbestos—free, then consumers are likely exposed to some degree of asbestos while using powder—based cosmetics.

So the million dollar question that everybody is asking is (actually, it is several billions if you ask J & J): Is talc powder in cosmetics dangerous, harmless, or somewhere in between? Let's try to settle this debate for good.

J & J Baby Powder — The Poster Child For Talc Issue

Recent J & J talcum powder lawsuits are based on thousands of plaintiffs alleging that longterm use of asbestos contaminated baby powder on their genital area caused their ovarian cancer. Hence, up for a very heated debate in courts (and among some cosmetic industry professionals, who love to insist that all cosmetics are safe), is whether or not we have scientific evidence that asbestos—tainted talc causes ovarian cancer.

Truth is, some studies as well as WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that there is sufficient evidence for a causal association between exposure to asbestos and ovarian cancer. And some other studies didn't find this link to be strong enough. So in conclusion, it's inconclusive! But in my opinion, none of this really matters. Why? Because this whole debate about ovarian cancer link is a deflection from the most important points in the case of talc vs. the people that are discussed below:

Asbestos is carcinogenic and it causes mesothelioma, a very deadly cancer, through inhalation.

• There is no safe concentration of asbestos exposure.

• Main exposure route is through inhalation. All powder products contaminated with asbestos pose a risk of asbestos inhalation during application.

• J & J knew about asbestos contamination and did nothing for decades. Companies knowingly selling asbestos—laced products are unethical and should be held accountable.

J&J Baby Powder
Photo by Amazon


But first, let us summarize two arguments used to deny issues of talc powder in cosmetics. I often see these points made by a few cosmetic industry colleagues who are vocal on Instagram and YouTube. Their posts are frequently paid sponsorships from cosmetic giants, like J & J, Pantene, and others:

1. Studies don’t show a strong link between asbestos and ovarian cancer: This is irrelevant, as I will explain below.

2. Number of cosmetic products with confirmed asbestos contamination is small, so the problem is not worth talking about:

  • So the logic here is that because only some products (and not all) contain a carcinogenic chemical, we should be ok with it? I don’t think so. According to FDA regulations, cosmetic products and ingredients don’t have to be tested for safety in the US before or after being placed of the market. In addition, in the US asbestos is not banned or regulated in cosmetics. Hence, we can only know that a product is contaminated if that particular product is tested by an independent party. So we don’t actually know the real number of problematic products currently on the market.

  • In the 2019 FDA survey 52 talc—containing products from 23 brands were tested. Asbestos was found in 9 products, which included brands like Claire’s, City Color, and J & J. Two conclusions can be made from this survey:

    • 52 products tested out of the thousands on the market is not a lot (the reason for limited testing are limited FDA resources)

    • 9 out of 52 products means that whooping 17% of tested talc products contained asbestos. This is far from insignificant!

Ok, so now back to my point and to answering the only relevant question: is talc powder in cosmetics safe or not? And the answer to that question relies on the following main points.

Asbestos is Carcinogenic

According to WHO's IARC:

All talc that contains asbestos is classified as carcinogenic” and “genital use of talc—based body powder is classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

According to exposure to asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer with dismal prognosis. When inhaled, asbestos fibers get lodged into lungs and stay there forever, causing respiratory issues and in some people cancer.

Biohazard warning symbol

No Level of Asbestos Exposure is Safe

WHO, FDA and other organizations around the world all agree and confirm that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. This means that, unlike some other toxic chemicals that our body can excrete or process over time, no amount of asbestos exposure is safe. And once asbestos is in your body, especially in your lungs, nothing can be done to remove it or to get rid of it.

Inhalation as the Exposure Route

As confirmed by IARC, EPA, WHO, FDA (and pretty much any other respectable, scientific organization) asbestos is carcinogenic when inhaled. Inhalation is by far, the most relevant exposure route, which is why asbestos most often causes lung cancer.

Since inhalation is the main route of exposure, all cosmetic and personal care powder products that contain asbestos—contaminated talc pose a health risk.

J & J baby powder is a powder with talc as the main ingredient, so some small portion of it will be inhaled when applied. This is a huge concern in case of babies, because the powder is applied very close to their face, and in case of women who use powder on daily basis, sometimes for decades (which results in cumulative exposure).

To be clear, J & J baby powder is not the only problem. Besides baby powders, other dangerous cosmetic products are loose powders, like setting powder or powder foundation, eye shadows, blush, antiperspirant body powders, etc. that contain talc laced with asbestos.

The focus should not be on whether we have a solid evidence that a known carcinogen causes ovarian cancer or not. The focus must be on the fact that asbestos causes cancer via inhalation and hence, it has no place in powder personal care products. This is especially true in case of talc, which is a fine powder that can be easily inhaled.

Asbestos—free talc is readily available and responsible cosmetic companies have established standards for sourcing only asbestos—free talc. So the solution exists and is out there for all descent companies who care.

A person with a gas mask and protective suit on
Photo by Pablo Stanic, Unsplash

J&J Knew About Asbestos Contamination and Did Nothing

When it comes to the debate of whether J & J should be held accountable or not, it is important to point that J & J knew about asbestos problem in their baby powder all along. According to internal communication documents and lab test results revealed in the court case, J & J executives knew about the asbestos contamination in their iconic product intended to be used on babies, as early as 1958 and most definitely by 1972. And they decided to do nothing about it. For decades! Even more so, they lied about it to the FDA when in 1976 they started investigating the issue of asbestos in cosmetics. They also successfully lobbied U.S. regulators against the plans to limit asbestos in cosmetics. Only after the big exposé, followed by consumer backlash and thousands of lawsuits, did J & J decide to remove the product from the US market.

To add insult to injury, J & J recently used a legal loophole dubbed “Texas two step” through which it created a new company and then assigned all legal liability for baby powder lawsuits to it. Then it immediately filed for bankruptcy of the said company, essentially capping the amount of damages thousands of plaintiffs could collect in court. Talk about unethical profit—at—all cost mission.

Important lesson here is that some companies cannot be trusted. With lack of regulations and consequences, there will always be companies who will put profit above consumer health. So we are left to wonder how many other "baby powders" are out there. One hope is that the hot mess J & J found itself in will serve as a lesson learned to others to do better. In the last few years we are already seeing some cosmetic companies switching their talc—based powder formulas to safer starch—based alternatives. This includes J & J who, after a lot of pressure, made the same switch in their US sold baby powder. And just recently, J & J announced that they will stop selling talc—based baby powder internationally too.

Woman with white powder falling over her body
Photo by Prekshit Satyarthi, Unsplash

In Summary

Asbestos is carcinogenic and confirmed to cause lung cancer. Hence, it should be absolutely avoided in any powder personal care products due to potential for inhalation during application.

  Asbestos is not banned or regulated in cosmetics in the US – The only way that we find out about it is from independent testing, like periodic FDA testing for asbestos. However, even if the FDA discovers asbestos in a cosmetic product, they don’t have the authority to remove the product from the market. They can only ask the company to do a voluntary recall and warn the consumers not to use that specific lot of specific product. Too little too late, in my opinion.

The biggest danger of asbestos exposure is from construction materials, especially when renovating old houses and buildings. Contractors, workers, or home owners who are directly handling these materials, too often without appropriate PPE, are at the highest risk of exposure.

So is talc powder dangerous to the point that you should panic about using cosmetics with it on occasion? No! But should we be ok with cosmetic companies knowingly selling products contaminated with asbestos and brush it under the carpet? Absolutely not! Nothing justifies use of asbestos–contaminated talc in personal care products, where it absolutely serves no purpose (unlike in some construction materials where asbestos is actually very useful, albeit very toxic if inhaled). Today, asbestos–free talc is readily available. We also have other innovative cosmetic materials that we can replace talc with when needed. In addition, there are sophisticated testing methods to detect traces of asbestos to ensure product safety for any cosmetic company that cares about consumer health. So there are absolutely no excuses.

What Can You Do About All This?

Living Pur Recommendations For Safe Use

Skip powder products that contain talc, especially high up on ingredient label. Products like baby powder pose the highest risk of inhalation, due to the nature of the product and talc being the main ingredient. In addition to baby powder, you should check any product in powder format: face setting powder, powder foundation, eyeshadow, blush, powder sunscreen, antiperspirant body powder. I can already hear the outcry of all makeup powder lovers out there. Yes, I know that the majority of high performing face powders do contain talc. But there are companies that make great products without talc. For example, all Cover FX products are talc—free, like their Perfect Setting Powder and Vapour Perfecting Powder comes recommended by clean beauty makeup artist Mong Bui @imongination. Sephora also offers some good options, like Saie Airset Radiant Setting Powder enriched with squalane or Bare Minerals bare—bones but effective formula Mineral Veil Setting Powder.

Cover FX, Vapour, Saie, and Bare Minerals are examples of well performing, talc–free makeup powders

From aesthetic point of view, talc in makeup tends to leave skin with chalky appearance, which is not that desirable. Other ingredients, like fine mica, disappear into the skin and depending on its particle size can give frosty, illuminating, or healthy, glowy appearance that is typically more appreciated today. So if you ask me, we can totally live without talc in makeup.

Know about responsible companies who source only asbestos–free talc and also about third party certifications who don't allow asbestos traces in their products. Buying products from these companies or with these third party certifications ensures their safety, so you can still enjoy your favorite talc products without worrying about nasty contaminants. Some examples worth mentioning include:

  • L’Oréal Group – It might come as a surprise but this cosmetic giant sources all raw materials (not just talc) with absence of asbestos. This applies to all of their many brands.

  • Clean at Sephora label -– All the products that carry this seal must use talc without detectable levels of asbestos. This is an easy way to shop Sephora's many brands worry–free when it comes to talc.

List of brands that belong to L'Oreal Group

Clean at Sephora symbol

Some brands and third party certifications that use only asbestos–free talc.

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