Think Dirty Ingredient Breakdown: Talc
Disclaimer: This article is slightly longer than usual! There is a lot of important information on Talc, its usages, and the ongoing controversy, and we wanted to give the clearest picture possible. For this reason, we’ve included a TL;DR below.
TL;DR: The safety of Talc, the main ingredient in baby powder and other products, is highly 2controversial.
- Johnson & Johnson (J&J), one of the most popular brands of baby powder, currently faces lawsuits from over 16,000 women. These lawsuits allege that the use of J&J baby powder factored significantly into their ovarian cancer.
- Talc has the potential to be contaminated with asbestos.
- The potential risks of Talc are heightened risk of ovarian cancer and respiratory damage from inhalation.
- There continue to be numerous Talc-containing products on the market: you can find it in eyeshadow, blush, deodorant, and more, so be sure to check your labels and stay informed.
Hello and welcome back to another edition of Think Dirty’s Ingredient Breakdown series!
In this edition, we tackle the challenging questions surrounding Talc. It is an extremely controversial, yet common, ingredient in the beauty world right now. The name might seem familiar, because Talc continues to make headlines as the debate about its safety and the seemingly endless high-profile lawsuits persist. Despite the overwhelming amount of media attention on this topic, many consumers are still left unsure of exactly what they should believe about this ingredient.
Whether you have heard of Talc before, or not, it’s probably been used on your skin multiple times in your life. Talc is the main ingredient in most baby powder and to this day is used in numerous cosmetic powder formulations including eyeshadows, pressed powders, and even some deodorants and soaps.1 Talc has been widely used in the industry for decades, often in products you use daily.
Talc itself is a naturally-occurring mineral composed of hydrated magnesium silicate.2 It’s mined from underground deposits and used in hundreds of products across many industries. Most people know Talc as the main ingredient in baby powder, AKA Talcum powder. Baby powder has been around for generations and generally is supposed to prevent babies from getting diaper rash, though there are dozens of other purported uses. In the past, though not as common anymore, women commonly used baby powder to freshen up the perineal area (basically the thighs and genitals). A daily practice among women was to apply baby powder to this area or to put the powder in their underwear, and for many women, this was a decades-long daily ritual, passed down through generations.
So, what’s the problem? Well, it turns out that Talc can potentially contain asbestos, a dangerous carcinogen at even minuscule levels of exposure, It is known to cause lung cancer and other deadly lung diseases. Asbestos, like Talc, is a naturally-occurring silicate mineral, and underground Talc deposits can be contaminated with asbestos.3
Aside from the overt risks and concerns of ovarian cancer, Talc inhalation is directly linked to lung cancer and respiratory issues, a fact that had already led doctors to steer parents away from using the product on their children years ago.
By 2018, 12,000 women had sued Johnson & Johnson (basically the iconic baby powder brand) across several lawsuits, with their lawyers arguing that the routine use of baby powder was directly linked to their ovarian cancer or mesothelioma.3,4 Some cases argue specifically that the issue lies in asbestos contamination, while others argue that the problem is the dangers of Talc alone. In one case, the jury sided with the plaintiffs and ordered J&J to pay 4.69 billion dollars in damages. Some lawsuits allege that J&J has known for years that their baby powder could potentially contain asbestos, and failed to report lab results showing levels of asbestos in their product to the FDA.5 In late 2018 the FDA found trace amounts of asbestos in J&J baby powder, but the company only recalled a single batch of the powders.5
Johnson & Johnson now faces close to 17,000 lawsuits. Among these are a lawsuit by the state of New Mexico arguing that the company knowingly marketed asbestos-contaminated Talcum powder to women and children, particularly to minority groups.6,7 They are also currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the United States Department of Justice.
The last time the FDA tested Talc for asbestos was in 2010, and the testing they performed was reportedly limited.3 Experts on the Johnson & Johnson cases claimed to have detected asbestos in the baby powder, while J&J claims their independent tests have detected no asbestos. The baby powder remains on the market.
Health Canada’s safety assessment of Talc details two main health concerns: potential lung damage from inhalation, and heightened risk of ovarian cancer if using Talc-containing products in the genital area.8 The International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) lists Talc (when applied to the perineal area) as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.9,10 This generally means that evidence is mixed and further exploration is needed to identify a true association between exposure and cancer development. Asbestos-containing Talc, however, is classified as “carcinogenic to humans.”11
Basically, we still don’t have a clear answer. Johnson & Johnson made headlines again recently when a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported no statistically significant link between perineal Talc use and ovarian cancer.12,13 Study results on the associations between Talc use and cancer have been historically mixed.14,15 Cancer risk factors, however, are notoriously hard to identify due to the sheer number that exist and the fact that cancer can take years to develop after exposure to a carcinogen. The fight continues between J&J, who adamantly deny that their Talc increases cancer risk or contains asbestos, and the plaintiffs, who seek answers and restitution.16 Scientists call for further research before associations can be fully realized. Even this new study still leaves room for doubt, one expert said.17 Though this was one of the largest observational studies on this topic, the sample was mostly limited to white, well-educated women with BMIs under 25.17
Johnson & Johnson remains determined that their baby powder neither increases cancer risk nor is contaminated with asbestos. They refute the science and numerous research studies demonstrating the potential links between perineal Talc use and ovarian cancer, deeming it “bad science”.3 They plan to appeal all their losses.
One of the main reasons that Think Dirty was created was to inform the public. Many consumers are left vulnerable as the FDA does not regulate the ingredients used in personal care products and rarely tests for safety or contamination. We want you to have all the information necessary to make your own informed decisions regarding your health and what you expose yourself to. By this point, you probably know that we exercise caution when it comes to these types of things, and that’s why we choose to steer clear of Talc.
The ingredients in Johnson & Johnson products can be viewed on our app. Be sure to check your ingredient lists for Talc, which can also run under the names Talcum powder, cosmetic Talc, and magnesium silicate.
- Talc (non-fibrous). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.whatsinproducts.com/chemicals/view/1/9/014807-96-6/Talc (non-fibrous)
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Talc. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/talc
- Rabin, R. C. (2018, December 15). What Is Talc, Where Is It Used and Why Is Asbestos a Concern? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/14/business/talc-asbestos-powder-facts.html
- Feinstein, C. (2019, October 29). Johnson & Johnson recalled a batch of baby powder after a test found asbestos. The company says the product is safe. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/johnson-and-johnson-jnj-baby-powder-recall-asbestos-in-talc-2019-10
- Helmore, E. (2019, October 18). Lawsuits, payouts, opioids crisis: what happened to Johnson & Johnson? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/oct/18/johnson-and-johnson-opioids-lawsuits-product-recalls
- Melillo, G. (2020, January 7). JAMA Study Finds No Significant Link Between Talc Powder, Ovarian Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.ajmc.com/focus-of-the-week/jama-study-finds-no-link-between-talc-powder-ovarian-cancer
- Hsu, T. (2020, January 3). Johnson & Johnson Sued Over Baby Powder by New Mexico. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/03/business/johnson-johnson-baby-powder-new-mexico-suit.html
- Canada, H. (2019, February 13). Government of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/chemicals-product-safety/talc.html
- IARC. (n.d.). Carbon Black, Titanium Dioxide, and Talc. Retrieved from https://publications.iarc.fr/Book-And-Report-Series/Iarc-Monographs-On-The-Identification-Of-Carcinogenic-Hazards-To-Humans/Carbon-Black-Titanium-Dioxide-And-Talc-2010
- Jonathan M. Samet, “Expert Review Under Attack: Glyphosate, Talc, and Cancer”, American Journal of Public Health 109, no. 7 (July 1, 2019): pp. 976–978.
- Talcum Powder and Cancer. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/talcum-powder-and-cancer.html
- Shapiro, N. (2020, January 16). New Data On Talcum Powder/Ovarian Cancer Connection. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ninashapiro/2020/01/16/new-data-on-talcum-powderovarian-cancer-connection/#1c6c4c374703
- O’Brien KM, Tworoger SS, Harris HR, et al. Association of Powder Use in the Genital Area With Risk of Ovarian Cancer. JAMA. 2020;323(1):49–59. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.20079
- Muscat, J. E., & Huncharek, M. S. (2008). Perineal talc use and ovarian cancer: a critical review. European Journal of Cancer Prevention, 17(2), 139–146. doi: 10.1097/cej.0b013e32811080ef
- Taher, M. K., Farhat, N., Karyakina, N. A., Shilnikova, N., Ramoju, S., Gravel, C. A., … Krewski, D. (2019). Critical review of the association between perineal use of talc powder and risk of ovarian cancer. Reproductive Toxicology, 90, 88–101. doi: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2019.08.015
- Sagonowsky, E. (2020, January 7). Johnson & Johnson settles California talc case in middle of trial: Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.fiercepharma.com/pharma/battling-thousands-cases-johnson-johnson-inks-2m-talc-settlement-california-bloomberg
- Christensen, J. (2020, January 7). Study finds no statistically significant link between talc powder and ovarian cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/07/health/talc-powder-ovarian-cancer-study/index.html
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