Talc is a soft, naturally occurring mineral used in baby powders, makeup, deodorant, ceramics and paint. Some research also links talc to ovarian cancer and talc contaminated with asbestos to mesothelioma. Johnson & Johnson and other manufacturers face thousands of lawsuits from people who claim their talc products caused cancer.
Talc is a naturally occurring silicate mineral mined from rock deposits in the Earth’s crust. In 2019, three companies operated talc mines in the United States, and they produced 630,000 tons of talc valued at about $24 million, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Manufacturers crush, dry and mill talc into a fine, soft, white powder called talcum powder. The powder serves as a lubricant and adds softness and shine to products. It prevents caking, absorbs moisture and makes products feel silky. This makes it a common ingredient in cosmetics, food additives and industrial products.
While talc is generally considered safe, some studies link the fine powder to health problems, and safety concerns led to a rise in talcum powder lawsuits.
Talcum Powder Uses
People have been using talc as far back as ancient Egypt. Ancient Assyrians and Native Americans also used talc for a variety of purposes. Talcum powder has cosmetic and industrial uses.
- Paint – 23 percent
- Export, refractories, insecticides and miscellaneous uses – 21 percent
- Ceramics (including automotive catalytic converters) – 20 percent
- Paper – 15 percent
- Rubber – 4 percent
- Roofing – 3 percent
- Cosmetics – 2 percent
The cosmetic talcum powder product most recognized by consumers in Johnson’s Baby Powder. In 1893, Johnson & Johnson released Johnson’s Baby Powder after discovering it could prevent diaper rash. Then companies began marketing it to women. They said talc was good for controlling odor and moisture in the genital area.
Industrial talc uses include food processing, ceramics and paints.
- Body Powder
- Johnson’s Baby Powder, CVS Brand Baby Powder, Rite Aid Baby Powder, Anti Monkey Butt Powder, Assured Shower & Bath Absorbent Body Powder, Angel of Mine Baby Powder, Family Dollar Mild Baby Powder, Shower to Shower Morning Fresh Absorbent Body Powder
- Maybelline New York Expert Wear Blush Gentle Rose, N.Y.C. New York Color Cheek Glow Powder Blush West Side Wine, NARS Blush Torrid
- Eye Shadow
- Physician’s Formula Shimmer Strips Custom Eye Enhancing Shadow & Liner Hazel Eyes, Black Radiance Eyeshadow Quartet Retro Chic, Stila Eye Shadow Trio Venus, Dior 5-Colour Iridescent Eyeshadow Petal Shine
- Black Opal True Color Liquid Foundation Heavenly Honey, Laura Mercier Foundation Powder Number 2
- Face Powder
- LA Colors Pressed Powder Nude, Revlon Color Stay Pressed Powder Fair, Cover Girl TruBlend Mineral Loose Mineral Powder Translucent Fair, Physician’s Formula Summer Eclipse Bronzing & Shimmery Face Powder Moonlight/Light Bronzer, Wet n Wild Bronzer Light/Medium, Iman Luxury Pressed Powder Clay Medium Dark, Coty Air Spun Loose Face Powder Translucent, Black Opal Color Fusion Powder Mosaic Raspberry Bronzer, Almay Nearly Naked Loose Powder Light/pale, Clinique Stay Matte Sheer Pressed Powder Invisible Matte
- Industrial Products
- Rust Oleum spray paints, Dupli-Color High Heat Paint with Ceramic, Glidden Brilliance Collection Ceiling Paint, Behr Interior-Exterior Oil-Base Semi-Gloss paint, Kilz Masonry Waterproofing Paint, National Gypsum ProForm All Purpose Joint Compound, Minwax Wood Putty, Glidden Interior Latex Paint, Owens Foamular 150 Extruded Polystyrene Insulation, various ceramic glazes and clays
Is Talcum Powder Safe?
Talc’s safety is a contested issue. Talcum powder manufacturers and suppliers say the powdery mineral used in cosmetic products is highly refined and safe. For example, nearly 40 years of studies by researchers and medical experts around the world support the safety of talc, according to Johnson & Johnson.
Although talc in makeup has not been linked to cancer, it can cause other health problems. Inhalation of face powder can also cause breathing difficulties. Makeup containing talc should never be applied to broken skin because it may cause inflammation or infection.
Does It Cause Mesothelioma?
Some studies and lawsuits link talcum powder contaminated with asbestos to mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma.
People may inhale or swallow talcum powder contaminated with asbestos fibers. It can cause inflammation and scarring. This can lead to mesothelioma.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says talc contaminated with asbestos is “carcinogenic to humans.” But the agency, which is a division of the World Health Organization, also specifies that asbestos-free talc is “not classifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans,” according to the agency’s June 2020 monographs on the identification of carcinogenic hazards to humans.
Does It Cause Ovarian Cancer?
Scientific literature going back to the 1960s has suggested a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer, but there hasn’t been a conclusive determination, according to the FDA. Women in these studies used talcum powder around the genital area.
One 2016 study by Joellen M. Schildkraut and colleagues in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found African American women who used talcum powder on their genitals had a 44 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer.
The IARC has declared use of talc in the genital (perineal) region as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” according to the agency’s June 2020 monographs on the identification of carcinogenic hazards to humans.
Is It Safe for Babies?
The American Academy of Pediatrics has voiced concerns about baby powder for decades. The organization recommends against the use of talcum powders on babies because it can cause severe lung damage and breathing problems if inhaled.
Some studies link talcum powder use to diseases other than mesothelioma or ovarian cancer.
Health organizations and medical professionals call for additional studies of talc and its safety. Some even warn against its use.
- Respiratory problems
- Lung cancer
Baby Powder Recall
In 2019, Johnson & Johnson recalled 33,000 bottles of Johnson’s Baby Powder after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found asbestos in a sample it tested. In May 2020, the company announced it would stop selling talc-based baby powder in the United States and Canada.
The decision came after juries awarded billions of dollars to people who said talcum powder products gave them ovarian cancer or mesothelioma.
But Johnson & Johnson has said its products are safe, and it stopped selling the products because of plummeting sales. Johnson’s Baby Powder makes up only about 0.5 percent of its consumer health business.
“Decades of scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of our product. We will continue to vigorously defend the product, its safety, and the unfounded allegations against it and the Company in the courtroom,” the company said in its statement.
Talc & Asbestos
Asbestos is a cancer-causing substance. Talc and asbestos occur naturally in the earth. In its natural form, some talc contains asbestos. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors cosmetic products for potential safety problems. But there is no law that requires cosmetic companies to share their safety information with the FDA.
The FDA does not allow asbestos in talcum powder. But the agency cannot guarantee that talc products sold in the U.S. are asbestos free.
Because of growing concerns about contaminated talc, the agency awarded AMA Analytical Services Inc. a one-year contract to test some talc-containing cosmetic products for asbestos in 2018. In March 2019, the FDA released the preliminary results. Forty-three samples tested negative for asbestos and nine tested positive.
More results are expected in 2021.
Major manufacturers of talcum powder do not have warning labels on their products. The U.S. government has not acted to remove the powders or add warning labels. The FDA has not found enough evidence to recommend ovarian cancer warning labels on baby powder.
Johnson & Johnson’s talc supplier added warning labels in 2006. J&J has yet to add similar warnings to its products.
Johnson’s Baby Powder labels do caution against talcum powder inhalation. They also say that the powder is for external use only.
In 2017, evidence released in Eva Echeverria’s ovarian cancer trial showed other baby powder manufacturers added ovarian cancer warnings.
Brands with warnings include: Angel of Mine Baby Powder from Dollar Tree and Spring Fresh Powder sold at Walmart.
Cornstarch is the most well-known alternative to talc. Some baby powders are made with cornstarch instead of talc. The American Cancer Society said there is no evidence linking cornstarch to cancer.
As concerns about the safety of talc grow, some makeup manufacturers are also introducing lines of talc-free cosmetics.
- Kaolin is naturally occurring white cosmetic clay. Kaolin’s overall hazard level is considered low.
- Arrowroot Powder
- Arrowroot Powder is a fine white powder similar to cornstarch.
- Zinc Oxid
- Zinc Oxide is best known as a mineral sunscreen. It is also used in mineral makeup as a thickener and whitener.
- Boron Nitride
- Boron Nitride diffuses light, can absorb excess oil in the face and disperses pigment evenly. Its overall health hazard is considered low, with some concerns of enhanced skin absorption.
- Rice Starch
- Rice Starch was widely used in face powders before it was replaced by talc. It has a tendency to cake when there is moisture. It can also become sticky and promote bacterial growth.
- Silk Powder
- Silk Powder is finely ground silk. If inhaled or swallowed, silk powder can cause severe allergic skin reactions and systemic reactions.
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