Woman Wins $110 Million in Baby Powder Lawsuit

CC BY 2.0. Austin Kirk/Flickr

It's a record-breaking amount of money that will doubtless force cosmetics companies to start examining their ingredient lists very carefully.

Skin care and cosmetics companies are finally being held accountable for the ingredients in their products. A high-profile court case in St. Louis last week is yet another example of this. The judge awarded 62-year-old Lois Slemp a record-breaking US $110.5 million for allegedly having developed ovarian cancer from prolonged use of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder.

Slemp, who was too ill to attend the trial and could not speak to reporters about her victory, presented a deposition by video. She told the audience, “I trusted Johnson & Johnson. Big mistake.” After forty years of sprinkling her body with baby powder containing talc, a highly controversial substance, cancer that was first diagnosed in 2012 continues to spread through her body.

This court case is not the only one that cosmetics giant Johnson & Johnson faces. Within the last several years, the company has been forced to pay out a total of $197 million for similar claims, and the Toronto Star reports that there are 2,000 state and federal lawsuits in courts across the United States addressing concerns about health problems caused by talc. Evidence against baby powder is mounting: the New York Times cited a study last year that “among African-American women, genital use of powder is linked with a 44 percent increased risk for invasive epithelial ovarian cancer."

Talc is the ingredient at the center of this debate. It is soft mineral that crushes into a fine white powder with excellent absorptive ability. It has been used by the cosmetics industry since the late 1800s. As the Star states, the majority of health groups and experts do not consider talc to be unsafe, which is likely why Johnson & Johnson refuses to put a warning label on its powder, though a few key players do question its safety. The International Agency for Research on Cancer says it’s possibly carcinogenic and the Environmental Working Group ranks baby powder as having moderate hazard:

“Talc can be contaminated with asbestos fibers, posing risks for respiratory toxicity and cancer. Studies by the National Toxicology Panel demonstrated that cosmetic-grade talc free of asbestos is a form of magnesium silicate that also can be toxic and carcinogenic.”

Slemp’s victory is big news, nonetheless. For decades, cosmetics companies have been selling ‘beauty’ products that are poisoning human bodies. They’ve been able to get away with putting dangerous, unknown, and cheap industrial ingredients into products that are absorbed directly into people’s skin.

As consumers, we’ve stood by quietly for too long, trusting that these companies are doing their research, ensuring public safety, and addressing health concerns as they arise. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Time has shown that companies will not clean up their acts by their own volition, but rather require strong consumer action and legal pressure to change.

Hopefully the victories of plaintiffs like Slemp will force Johnson & Johnson at the very least to put warning labels on its products, or, better yet, to reformulate the product altogether. Fortunately, baby powder is a non-essential (as are most cosmetics, despite what marketers say), and it can easily be replaced with safer ingredients like rice flour and cornstarch.