(Non) Toxic Beauty: Does Talc Cause Cancer?

The internet is a place where people can say what they want. It’s not a surprise that most of us (yes, myself included) are driven by a bias for income and engagement. I could say a lot of things, but the bottom line is: as a consumer one must research and read to determine the truth themselves. I’m going to talk about the dangers of powder makeup and the guilt-by-association ingredient talc, but please click the source links and read more to educate yourselves. The FDA was on the hill just last week (testifying only for the 2nd time in 40 years) asking for the ability to keep consumer safe, which they currently can’t do. You are your ONLY safety net right now!

Last year I wrote an epic, science-based article on Cosmetic safety. If you recall, it was then I shared a couple of things:

  1. Breathing in powders (and consuming personal care products on your lips) is the most dangerous of method of toxin exposure because the rate of absorption is MUCH higher than through the skin. (see chart below)
  2. Natural powders don’t alleviate this. In fact, it’s exacerbated since naturally occurring harmful substances (like heavy metals or asbestos) can be carried along with natural powders.
  3. It’s important to use a brand of product that continuously tests for safety to ensure powders you’re using are not harming your health.

Does Talc Cause Cancer?

Now, over a year later, the documentary Toxic Beauty is out and unearthing these scary facts and sharing lots of the information I’ve been telling everyone for years. One ingredient, however, causes confusion for some people. So I want to dig into the science and really, fully address it.

If someone says, “Talc causes cancer” are they right?

NO.

If someone says, “Talc can be contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen,” are they right?

YES. 

There’s a nuance there that some people are losing sight of. Contamination doesn’t affect all talc. Which is why WE NEED TESTING, and we need manufacturer’s to be responsible for ensuring the safety of their products. If we’re going to point back to the Johnson & Johnson case, it’s important to note that not only was it contaminated, but they knew it was contaminated with a known carcinogen for a long time.

 

Reuters did an in-depth investigation and the part that gets me the most is:

J&J didn’t tell the FDA that at least three tests by three different labs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in its talc – in one case at levels reported as “rather high.”

Here’s the thing: the FDA can’t do anything about it anyway.

Not that they wanted to until recently.

In the 1900’s (wow, that immediately made me feel old) a graduate student had a light bulb moment while studying geology textbooks and asked the FDA for help in protecting consumers. He wanted to include at least a warning label (I mean, heck, even cigarettes got that).

Talc deposits are commonly laced with asbestos, a similar mineral. The student, Philippe Douillet immediately thought of the talc powder his sister used on her baby. He urged her to stop using it. Then he petitioned the FDA to require an asbestos warning on talc powders.

“It was really obvious to me there was a big issue there,” said Douillet. When the FDA began evaluating Douillet’s petition, it looked to J&J for key information, agency records show. The FDA’s June 1985 risk assessment relied upon a decade-old letter from the company for the agency’s estimate of the amount of dust babies were exposed to during diapering.

That 1974 letter from J&J to the FDA said that, hypothetically, even if babies were exposed to talc powder with as much as 1% asbestos, it would be a far lower concentration than allowed at the time for industrial workers. FDA decided there was no need for an asbestos warning on talc powders. In a July 1986 letter to Douillet, FDA wrote that the quality of cosmetic talc had improved “and that even when asbestos was present, the levels were so low that no health hazard existed.”

The FDA defended its 1986 decision to reject Douillet’s petition. In a statement, it said the graduate student “did not provide persuasive evidence that the cosmetic talc produced at the time contained significant amounts of asbestos minerals.” [summarized from the Reuter’s Investigation]

Surely it’s better than that now?

So here we are, 40 years later, finally making progress but light years behind other first world countries like Canada and the EU who have banned hundreds of chemicals the US still allows. So until we’re caught up (even if these bills pass it’ll be years before change is implemented), what can you do?

The FDA requested that Claire’s recall the products because they should not be used by consumers. Claire’s has refused to comply with the FDA’s request, and the agency does not have authority to mandate a recall. The FDA is therefore warning consumers not to use these products and will continue to communicate our safety concerns about them. [source]

That’s right. In 2019 the FDA requested Claire’s recall a product from 2017 known to be contaminated with asbestos and they said “no thanks.” For years young girls used this product, unknowingly. And even when it was known there was nothing our government could do to protect us. That product continued to sell to unknowing customers. Many are likely still in use today.

What the FDA Does About This

Listen it’s a BIG thing that just LAST WEEK the FDA testified on the hill requesting the ability to regulate cosmetics and personal care products, have the ability to mandate recall, and review ingredients for safety. The hearing included questions and comments from dozens of Government officials, nearly all of the bi-partisan room was in shock at the lack of safety currently (not) protecting the American people and were in agreement that something needs to be done.

The agency said it lacks the authority to require manufacturers to test for asbestos in talc or report any results. And it seldom has ordered its own tests–until recently… “When something as serious as cancer or carcinogens are at issue,” Krishnamoorthi [an Illinois congressman] said, “self-regulation doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The agency said it has no power to ensure the safety of cosmetics before they are put on store shelves, nor to force companies to pull them off when potential hazards are discovered. “We are dependent on manufacturers to take steps to ensure the safety of their products,” the FDA said after announcing a voluntary recall of tainted cosmetics in March.

In March of this year I “marched forth” on Washington asking for them to support the bill currently under review. Now alongside another bill that aims to prevent greenwashing, Congress is listening. It took multiple cases of asbestos in powder make-up, to get us there – and one that was NOT recalled despite the FDA’s request, to finally get National attention. We can finally say now, companies won’t always do what’s right when it’s not in the interest of their bottom line (shocker).

Which is why we NEED regulation and testing.

It was decades ago we had the opportunity to at least warn consumers that powders, talc in particular, was known to carry along naturally occurring chemical friends that cause harm to human health.

Naturally Occurring

I’ve used this word several times throughout this post to make a point: NATURAL ISN’T SAFE.

And even if it was, there is no regulation to govern what is “natural” or not for personal care labels. A brand can literally put “paraben-free” on their label, when parabens are known to be binders in the Fragrance (which hides dozens of chemicals you’ll never know exist) because of the loop holes.

Greenwashing is a real thing. And so is alarmism.

Sure, it’s easy to believe something you hear like “talc causes cancer” or “natural is better.” But that’s just not necessarily the case. Powders of the earth can be contaminated, as we have seen with talc and often see with colorants that carry heavy metals.

Poison Ivy is natural. Snake Venom is natural. Asbestos contaminated talc is natural. I don’t want any in my cosmetics.

Likewise, there are some hard to pronounce man-made ingredients that I’m perfectly comfortable with, like phenoxyethenol – so long as proper safety testing has occurred. Things like safer preservatives that protect against mold may prevent an item from being called “all natural” but I’m OK with that! Remember Herbivore’s moldy face cream recall earlier this year?

It’s Time to Educate Yourself

I’ve been talking about this for years. I’m writing and researching it and sharing on this blog and social media as much as I can. And yet, this week because a few bloggers learned 20% of the full picture took to social media using incorrect and inaccurate information, we’re hearing the same concerns.

We can do better, friends.

Let’s break it down.

  1. Talc doesn’t cause cancer, asbestos contaminated talc can. Just like clay doesn’t cause hormone disruption, the heavy metal contaminants in it can.
  2. Let me say it again: You don’t know if something is safe unless you test.

It’s like the “jump to conclusions” map from Office Space.

Saying “asbestos causes cancer, therefore any product containing talc is bad” is not accurate. There are certified asbestos-free talcs, just like there’s heavy metal-free colorants.

Could you avoid all talc to be safe? Sure. Does it make sense to then jump into an all-natural mineral-based makeup that may be talc-free but uses ingredients also sourced of the earth, which are just as likely to be contaminated with about a bazillion potential hazards? No.

Use Products Tested for Safety

I personally am much more interested in using products that have been tested for safety.

You can’t argue out one side of your mouth for all-natural, if you’re also complaining about contaminated sources. It’s frustrating since many of the same people love all-natural products and complain about synthetic colorants, which are the highest known contaminants.

It was an evolution over many years for me to find the right mix of products that both performed well and didn’t harm my health. The most important for me, was learning about contaminants in powders and the high rate of absorption vs. through the skin barrier.

Contaminant Absorption

I go into detail on this in the Why Cleaner Cosmetics Matter. As a refresher, these are some contaminants, what effects they have, and the route of entry to increase harm. Notice, all of them increase with “inhalation” or “ingestion”. That means powders, lip products or products for the hands (that are then put in your mouth) are highest risk.

Metal

Route of Entry

Health Effects

Mercury Inhalation, ingestion and absorption through the skin Disruption of the nervous system, damage to brain functions, DNA damage and chromosomal damage, allergic reactions, tiredness and headaches, negative reproductive effects (sperm damage, birth defects, and miscarriages)
Arsenic Inhalation and ingestion Birth defects, carcinogen: lung, skin, liver, bladder, and kidneys, GI damage, severe vomiting, diarrhea, death
Lead Inhalation and ingestion Anemia, hypertension, kidney damage, miscarriages, disruption of nervous systems, brain damage, infertility, intellectual disorders
Cadmium Inhalation, ingestion and absorption through the skin Anemia, birth defects, impairment of pulmonary function, renal dysfunction, bone changes, liver damage (hepatotoxicity), kidney damage (nephrotoxicity), iron deficiency, oxidative stress
Aluminum Inhalation, ingestion and absorption through the skin Oxidative stress, aluminosis and dialysis encephalopathy syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer

Source (NIH’s National Library of Medicine publication) (1) (2) and (3) as well as CDC (4)

In reviewing the scientific findings, inhalation or ingestion of these heavy metals compares unfavorably to absorption through the skin (60% vs .5% in the case of Cadmium). Powder cosmetics are absolutely inhaled, and cosmetics which are put on your lips are ingested.

Cosmetic use over time has also not been significantly tested, but this study measured heavy metal toxicity in humans after use of 30 different cosmetics:

Test showed no statistical significant difference in concentrations of metals between the expensive and cheap cosmetic products. It is obvious from the present study that the use of these cosmetic products exposes users to low concentrations of toxic heavy metals which could constitute potential health risk to users since they are known to accumulate in biological systems over time. Similarly, regular monitoring of other heavy metals and chemicals used in the manufacture of cosmetics products which may cause health risks to users should be emphasized. [source]

Which Bring Us to, Why I Use Beautycounter

The main reason I choose Beautycounter for my cosmetics is because of the testing they do on all products. They routinely test for asbestos, heavy metals, and hormone disrupting chemicals. Unlike anyone in the industry, they partner with Tuft’s university for further 3rd party scrutiny. Unlike other companies, they not only test the source, but they batch test to ensure that contaminants aren’t introduced.

As natural brands often use clay-based and ingredients of the earth, they often test the highest in heavy metals. The only way to know your personal care products do not contain contaminants is to test them. Not just once when sourcing the ingredient, but regularly to ensure that levels do not change with the supply chain.

For example, a mineral-based powder foundation brand may test for heavy metals at creation of a product. But that product is now years and years old  and its testing is out of date. If the brand never re-tested when new batches of source materials came in, it may become contaminated by asbestos, heavy metals, or other toxins. This happened with Beautycounter in a recent batch test of their clay-based masks. I love that they immediately pulled the product, showing that safety standards were of more importance than their bottom line.

What Can You Do About It?

Contact your Congressperson and ask them to support the Personal Care Product Safety Act (S.1113). Even for those who can’t or don’t want to use Beautycounter, this Act would ask the FDA to do better – putting safer skincare into the hands of EVERYONE, even the $2 body wash from the dollar store.

We all deserve to not bathe ourselves in neurotoxins, carcinogens, estrogen disruptors and other toxic chemicals. Giving the FDA the authority to demand recalls means that doing the right thing won’t be voluntary. If this is something that matters to you, contact your local legislators. Especially contact Senate offices, where the bipartisan bill is currently under review.

Want an easy button? Text “BetterBeauty” to 52886 and you’ll get a link to submit a form letter. Please, take a second right now to do this simple & easy but important task that could have a big impact for us all!

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