By Mary Carpenter
“LOOK AT at the label of your blush, face powder or eye shadow and you’ll likely see talc listed as an ingredient,” notes drugwatch. Other possible talc-containing products include mascara, concealer and moisturizers. Noting that the FDA considers talc GRAS (generally recognized as safe) in cosmetics, the site states: “Face powders often contain up to 100 percent talc, according to a safety report from the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. Other products, such as aerosol makeup bases, can be up to 35 percent talc.”
“Cosmetics is probably the best example of weak regulatory action leaving the American people unprotected,” former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration David Michaels told New Yorker writer Casey Cep. In her article “Damages,” Cep focuses on Johnson & Johnson’s sales of talc products—including those with traces of asbestos, “among the world’s deadliest carcinogens”—decades after documentation of the products’ health risks, notably of ovarian cancer.
Cosmetic companies—for whom only voluntary self-testing for ingredients is required—have claimed talc products made after 1976 to be “asbestos-free,” according to Cep. But “as recently as 2019 the FDA found asbestos in several talc products on store shelves—including in one bottle of J&J Baby Powder [which the company blamed on] testing error or contamination.”
And “studies that exposed lab animals to asbestos-free talc in various ways have had mixed results, with some showing tumor formation and others not finding any,” according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Meanwhile,“talc that has asbestos is generally accepted as being able to cause cancer if it is inhaled.”
“The FDA’s Division of Cosmetics has “just 30 employees and an annual budget of less than ten million dollars…a twentieth of what it spends regulating food and drugs for pets,” writes Cep. “Whereas some countries’ regulators have banned more than 2,400 cosmetic ingredients, from parabens to formaldehyde, the FDA has banned or restricted fewer than a dozen.” According to Scott Faber at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), regulations covering “cosmetics,” including toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo, “are some of our most broken laws.”
“Independent testing has found hundreds of popular personal care items in the US to be contaminated with benzene,” according to the Guardian. Analyses have found benzene, a chemical linked to leukemia and other cancers, in everything from hand sanitizers to antiperspirants, lip products and moisturizers—“even if it’s not listed as an ingredient [and] most frequently in aerosol or spray products, some at levels the FDA has characterized as ‘life-threatening.’”
“Since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals in more than 73,000 products that have been linked to…serious health problems including cancer,” according to the EWG. And of “The Toxic Twelve Chemicals and Contaminants in Cosmetics” on the EWG’s latest list, the EU has banned every one of them.
Many of the “toxic twelve” have been slated for removal from store brands, according to a 2020 EWG report. In the report’s comparison of CVS Health with Whole Foods, CVS as of the end of 2019 prohibited the use of formaldehyde and substances known as PFAS that have been linked to cancer as well as hormone disrupting phthalates and parabens—but only “some of these are already banned from products sold in Whole Foods.”
Cosmetic chemicals enter the body through skin, inhalation, ingestion and internal use, but FDA authorization, while it ensures protection from harmful ingredients in food, does not extend to cosmetics. In addition, the FDA allows the omission from product labels of any chemical deemed a component of fragrance —a list that includes two phthalates, one of which has been classified as “possibly carcinogenic,” according to the EWG.
“No significant link” between women’s use of talcum powder on the genitals and cancer was the conclusion of a study published in JAMA of more than 250,000 women between 1976 and 2017. But the study authors noted that, even in the absence of asbestos, the powder could “induce an inflammatory response…could set off a cascade of increased oxidative stress levels…all of which could contribute to carcinogenesis.”
Baby powder using the mineral talc made its debut in J&J’s 1902 at-home birth kits. Cep describes a 1971 study analyzing tissue of reproductive-cancer patients that found “most of their cervical and ovarian tumors had talc in them.” Explains the ACS site: asbestos-free talc “might cause cancer in the ovaries” when applied to the genital area or on diaphragms or condoms—if the particles “were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary.”
“Johnson & Johnson has always insisted that its baby powder was ‘safe, asbestos-free and does not cause cancer,’” according to Cep. But in the past 20 years, a lethal form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure in men who worked in mining or construction, called mesothelioma, has shown up in “a much younger population and more women.” Now facing over 40,000 lawsuits in the US alleging that baby powder contaminated with asbestos caused ovarian cancer or mesothelioma, J&J has announced that after 2023, its baby powder will no longer contain talc, using cornstarch in its place.
Pulmonary fibrosis is another disease mentioned in connection with talc. In a 1969 memo, a J&J company scientist warned about “the possibility of adverse effects on the lungs of babies or mothers” and noted that “pulmonary fibrosis…might be rightfully or wrongfully attributed to inhalation of our power formulations.” According to a summary by Spanish researchers, “Over the last decades…the prevalence and incidence of IPF (idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis) have appeared to be increasing.”
Both my grandmother and father died after long bouts of lung disease, and my father’s diagnosis was pulmonary fibrosis. Reading about J&J’s introduction of baby powder in 1902 made me wonder whether sprinklings of talc on my father as a baby in the 1920s or the clouds of Chloe powder— with talc listed as an ingredient — that proceeded my grandmother everywhere played a role in their deaths.
I rarely used cosmetic products after several intense allergic reactions—notably to a Clinique facial that caused my eyes to swell shut for the remainder of the day. But I have used blush powder and other items containing talc. And we may, all of us who lived during the 20th century, have had frequent exposure to asbestos—infiltrating our daily lives in cement and building insulation, car parts and various home appliances.
—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on need-to-know topics in health and medicine.