Stay Away From Talc-Based Cosmetics

A new report finds that many are contaminated by asbestos.

woman puts on makeup

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If you see talc listed as an ingredient in cosmetics, you should stay away from it. There is a chance that the talc could be contaminated with asbestos, a deadly human carcinogen that is found in the same parent rock from which talc is mined. 

A new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reveals that asbestos contamination in everyday consumer products is more prevalent than you may think. The EWG commissioned a series of laboratory tests of talc-based cosmetics by the Scientific Analysis Institute in Greensboro, N.C. 

This institute, which is considered a world leader in asbestos detection, analyzed 21 samples of cosmetics using electron microscopy and followed test procedures described by the Environmental Protection Agency. It found that nearly 15% of the samples contained asbestos, including products marketed toward children. The results have been published in the journal Environmental Health Insights.

While the sample set is small, and 15% may seem like a fairly low number, it's far from harmless. It takes very little asbestos to have a lasting and harmful effect on the human body, and exposure has been linked to asbestosis (inflammation and scarring of lungs), mesothelioma (a cancer that occurs in the thin layer of tissue surrounding internal organs), and lung and ovarian cancers. Around 15,000 Americans die annually from asbestos-related diseases.

The fact that talc is used in many loose powdered products makes it more dangerous because the risk of inhalation is higher. Dr. Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the EWG, said in a press release,

"Inhaling even the tiniest amount of asbestos in talc can cause mesothelioma and other deadly diseases, many years after exposure. How much talc is inhaled – and how much is contaminated with asbestos – is hard to know, but it only takes one asbestos fiber, lodged in the lungs, to cause mesothelioma decades later."

EWG says that even a few days of exposure is enough to cause mesothelioma years later and that studies have found "more than 60% of mesothelioma cases in women are likely attributable to non-occupational exposure to asbestos." The fact that rates of mesothelioma have declined in men over the past two decades while remaining stable in women suggests that the latter are being exposed to asbestos in non-occupational settings – likely the personal products they're using.

Currently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires cosmetics to be safe, but does not outline how inhalation exposure should be assessed. The lack of regulation dates back to the 1950s, when cosmetics companies first realized that talc was dangerous, but convinced the FDA to let them self-regulate. The FDA has continued in this vein, allowing companies to do their own safety testing, while urging them to "select talc mines carefully to avoid asbestos contamination."

Clearly this is an inadequate and outdated response to a serious problem. Scott Faber, senior vice-president for government affairs at the EWG, told Treehugger, 

"The FDA has limited authority under current federal law, and has been slow to use tools the agency does have at its disposal. The Biden-Harris Administration should require testing, and require that test results be shared with the FDA and the public. Whatever the cost, it is nothing compared to costs to those dying from mesothelioma."

Some bills have been introduced that would require tighter regulation, such as adding warning labels to products marketed to children that might contain asbestos, and another that would give the FDA the power to review controversial chemicals used in cosmetics and recall or stop production of those that pose a serious health risk.

Until that happens, however, people are on their own. Treehugger asked Nneka Leiba, co-author of the newly-published study and vice-president of Healthy Living Science at EWG, what consumers should do to protect themselves from asbestos. Leiba recommended avoiding all talc-based products, especially if they're in a powdered form that can be easily inhaled. 

"Luckily, there are many alternatives on the market. Some companies, for example, offer cornstarch-based powders. The good news is that, according to [the EWG's] Skin Deep database, which rates more than 80,000 products based on the hazards associated with their ingredients, every product category that has talc-containing products, also has non-talc-containing options."

Note: Other common alternatives include baking soda, arrowroot or tapioca starch, and oat flour.

This report is yet another reminder to read ingredient lists carefully and critically and not to take risks with your health. In Leiba's words, "Given [that there is] a plethora of talc-free alternatives on the market, using a product that may have any amount of these dangerous fibers is not worth the risk."

View Article Sources
  1. Whitmer, Michelle, and Walter Pacheco. "Talc Exposure: Mesothelioma Link, Cover-Ups & Lawsuits". Mesothelioma Center - Vital Services For Cancer Patients & Families, 2020.

  2. Stoiber, Tasha et al. "Asbestos Contamination In Talc-Based Cosmetics: An Invisible Cancer Risk". SAGE Journals, 2020.

  3. Amarelo, Monica. "Analysis: Talc-Based Cosmetics Test Positive For Asbestos". EWG, 2020.