In this article I’m going to be talking about the controversial ingredient talc in personal care products, including makeup and skincare.
A few days ago Johnson & Johnson announced it would no longer be selling talc based baby powder in the U.S. This is in the wake of a lot of litigation against Johnson & Johnson about claims of talc and ovarian cancer risk.
Talc is a non porous chemically inert substance. It has a crystalline structure and the crystals can slide past one another very easily. What that translates to in skincare products is it allows for things to not only lubricate the skin but also give a silky smooth finish. It absorbs oil and it prevents caking. so it’s an anti-caking agent.
The amount of talc in products will vary substantially from product to product, with some products having just a small amount and others being close to a hundred percent talc.
Talc has been used in cosmetics for so many years, dating back to the ancient Egypt. 5,000 years ago the Egyptians were using talc to do their makeup.
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How Safe is Talc in Our Skin Care Products and Makeup?
To be honest, most people tolerate talc in personal care products just fine with very few to no side effects.
While talc is generally well tolerated in personal care products that you’d be putting on the skin, like makeup, there is a risk if you apply talc to abraded skin or wound. The talc will get into the deeper layers of the skin and cause what’s called a foreign body granuloma. This is not super common but it certainly can occur.
This can happen in people who have what’s called intertrigo, a type of dermatitis that happens in the skin folds. For women this often will occur under the breasts. It’s frequent in abdominal folds and under the armpits. Basically the combination of sweat and moisture and skin on skin contact can actually break down the skin barrier quite a bit and abrade the skin.
People reach for baby powders because they’re anti-caking agents and they want to dry up some of that moisture to help prevent those rashes and also to provide some lubrication. Unfortunately if the skin is abraded there, there is a risk of these little talc granulomas form in the skin. But it is a rare complication.
Serious lung complications can happen though if you inhale large volumes of talc. You can cause a serious type of lung injury. Initially it may cause an asthma like reaction and then more serious lung injury down the road. This is something that people who have occupational exposure to aerosolize talc have to protect themselves against.
To the average consumer, using baby powder and makeup, it’s not a serious issue. Theoretically the risk is there with personal care products, but you would have to be inhaling large amounts of your makeup on a consistent basis to develop this type of problem.
What About Talc and Ovarian Cancer?
There’s been a lot of controversy and concern around an association between talcum powder use and women and ovarian cancer. The thinking is that putting talc in your underwear, for example, could travel up into the lower female genital tract and then up through the fallopian tubes to the ovaries and cause irritation and kick off a cascade that can put you at risk for ovarian cancer.
There certainly are case reports of talc deposits in the ovaries of women. This got people really worried that talc in baby powder could cause ovarian cancer, but we have no epidemiologic evidence to support this concern.
As a matter of fact, in light of all this litigation and controversy, there was a recent large study looking at all of the medical literature and all the epidemiologic studies on talc exposure and ovarian cancer, and it found no association.
As it stands, we have no evidence of a causal association between talc exposure in personal care products and ovarian cancer.
The federal judge presiding over this collective litigation against Johnson & Johnson ruled that the plaintiff’s expert witnesses could no longer present their data because it was not scientifically sound in terms of claiming that ovarian cancer was caused by talc exposure.
So as it stands, we really have no no evidence to support these claims against Johnson & Johnson that talc is causative of ovarian cancer.
A lot of people are going to be fearful anytime they hear that something is detected in the body and they’re going to associate that in their mind with harm to human health.
In this case talc has been detected in the ovaries of women, but, I don’t see any cause for concern around talc specifically in personal care products outside of those situations I mentioned. You don’t want to put it on open, wounded, abraded skin. You don’t want to inhale large quantities of it and please do not inject talc.
Outside of those situations, I have no concern with talc. As ingredient, I think it’s fine.
What About Asbestos-contaminated Talc in Personal Care Products?
Both asbestos and talc are silicate minerals from the Earth’s crust and they’re often in close proximity to one another.
The cosmetic talc is required to be free of of asbestos. If you’re not familiar, if you inhale asbestos, it can cause a type of cancer in the lungs called mesothelioma. The mesothelioma doesn’t show up until many years later, but it is bad if you inhale asbestos.
Back in the 70s, they looked at some products that had talc in them and found that they were contaminated with asbestos, but there were a lot of false positives. But in 2018, an independent organization actually conducted testing on some makeup and they found that talc in that makeup was in fact contaminated with asbestos, which should not be the case.
That’s worrisome, but to be frank, unless the people were inhaling large volumes of their makeup, the risk of asbestosis and mesothelioma is not there. You have to be inhaling a lot of it. But still, asbestos should not be in makeup. That is worrisome.
What other stuff with talc in it could be contaminated with asbestos?
The FDA looked into this and they examined 30-40 random products (makeup, personal care products, etc.) that had talc in them and tested them for asbestos and found that they were all negative.
But how could you possibly test every personal care product in the U.S. that contains talc for asbestos. You really can’t.
But to what extent people are inhaling their makeup to expose their lungs to asbestos and to cause mesothelioma? It really seems very unlikely. But it shouldn’t be there.
Regardless, consumers are freaked out and you’ve probably already seen a boom in the past few years of talc-free marketing.
What happened with Johnson & Johnson deciding to nix their baby powder with talc is not because their baby powder with talc was found to be associated with ovarian cancer, their baby powder with talc does not contain asbestos, it’s not because the product was ever bad or ever caused any harm to human health that we have any evidence for, it’s because consumer demand for that product went away.
So what happens is they have a bottom line to meet and they’re there to create products that consumers are going to buy, not products that consumers are afraid of and are not interested in. So of course they elected to stop selling their talc baby powder.
There are still stores that have it in stock, they’re still allowing them to sell it, it hasn’t been recalled. They’re just no longer gonna make it and put it out there. They’re going to instead do corn starch based one.
What is Going to Replace Talc?
There are ton of things that can replace talc. I mean it’s not the end-all be-all of an anti-caking agent.
You have silica, you have clay, French green clay, tapioca starch, arrowroot starch, corn starch, rice starch and zinc oxide powder.
You’ll see these ingredients more than talc as manufacturers try to get away from talc.