Is talc-based makeup exposing women to asbestos?

  • Health & Safety
health and safety in cosmetics
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Peninsula Team, Peninsula Team

(Last updated )

Scores of British women are bringing lawsuits to US courts, claiming they have contracted mesothelioma. But the defendant isn’t a construction company exposing its workers to asbestos. It’s cosmetics giant Johnson & Johnson, and the products supposedly causing this fatal disease are beauty products.

The ingredient these claimants hold responsible is talcum powder, or talc, which is in nearly all makeup products, including bronzer, blusher, eye shadow, foundation, mascara, lipstick and dry shampoo. Talc is used across the beauty industry for its moisture-absorbent properties, preventing the ‘caking’ effect on skin.

However, talc is a mineral mined from underground clay deposits – the same environment where another mineral, asbestos, is present. Many talc deposits have veins of asbestos, which means they have the potential to expose end users to life-threatening diseases like mesothelioma.

Makeup brands are aware of this risk, and test for asbestos in the talc they use. The Estée Lauder Companies group (including Clinique and Bobbi Brown) state:

“We only use talc that is tested and certified as asbestos free. Additionally, all our ingredients undergo a comprehensive safety review and evaluation, and our products are safe for their intended use.”

Asbestos isn’t distributed evenly in talc, which is why most people who use makeup haven’t developed mesothelioma. However, this uneven distribution makes it hard to test accurately for asbestos, especially using the industry standard test, X-ray diffraction. This method can’t detect levels beneath 0.5%, meaning the industry can claim its talc contains “no detectable asbestos”.

There is, however, another method to test for asbestos in talc. Transmission electron microscopy is more sensitive: a 2020 study by geologist and mineralogist Sean Fitzgerald (et al) that used this method found asbestos in 3 out of 21 powder-based cosmetics available in the US.

 A 2020 paper by pathologist Theresa Emory (et al) examined 75 cases where people had developed malignant mesothelioma. Their only known exposure to asbestos was repeated exposure to cosmetic talcum powders. The study concluded that cosmetic talc may have been a cause.

In response to the claims, the UK’s Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association said:

“Any allegation that talc as used in cosmetic products as sold in the UK is potentially unsafe would be a very serious matter. We believe that there is no basis for such an allegation…

“All ingredients within cosmetic products must be safe and ingredients are regularly reviewed by independent scientists. If an ingredient were found to be unsafe when used in a cosmetic product, it would be banned.”

Johnson & Johnson are currently facing around 54,000 lawsuits related to talc in their Baby Powder product following mass attention to the talc issue in 2018. The company maintains that its products do not contain asbestos and do not cause cancer.

Although many of the claimants are British, the legal actions are being taken in the US because the majority of major cosmetics companies are based there. Furthermore, UK law makes it difficult to claim compensation for exposure to mesothelioma unless it is work-related.

Talc is not regulated by any government agency, either in the UK or US. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began conducting a review to test cosmetic samples that began in 2019. Its initial tests of 43 samples found that 9 of them contained asbestos. A test of 50 further samples has yet to publish its results.

Because there is no law that regulates asbestos in talc, the FDA can’t take action unless scientific data shows it is harmful under its intended use. This is hard to prove, given the long latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases. It can be decades before the first symptoms appear.

Visit BrAInbox today where you can find answers to questions like What are the health risks of asbestos?

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