Not worth the risk: It’s time to get talc out of all cosmetics, not just baby powder

Johnson & Johnson will end the sale of talc-based baby powders--which can be contaminated with asbestos--in the United States and Canada. That’s a big win for consumers, but it’s not enough.

Johnson & Johnson baby powder
Mike Mozart via Flickr, CC by 2.0
Danielle Melgar

Former Food & Agriculture, Advocate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Johnson & Johnson announced on Tuesday that it has ended the sale of talc-based baby powders in the United States and Canada. That’s a big win for consumers, because talc is often contaminated with asbestos, which can cause cancer. As of March, there were 19,400 lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson by individuals who claim that Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder caused their cancer. Medical experts say that even short-term asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma decades later.

You’re probably wondering why potentially carcinogenic products that we’re using every day on infants are allowed to be on the market.

Let me explain: 

Asbestos and talc (the mineral of interest for cosmetic companies) are often found near each other in nature. So, when we mine talc, sometimes we get a little asbestos with it. In fact, one gram of talc can have millions of fibers of asbestos at levels that Johnson & Johnson previously said were undetectable.

Cosmetic products don’t require pre-market approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so we count on the companies that produce and sell them to self-regulate and adhere to the Personal Care Products Council’s voluntary Consumer Commitment Code. But companies have known about the link between talc and asbestos since the 1950s, and while some have stopped using talc as an ingredient, many haven’t. Therefore, several talc-containing products — such as eye shadow and baby powder — are still for sale on store shelves. 

When you buy one of these products, it may or may not contain asbestos (and you hope it contains none, because the federal government says there is no safe level of exposure for any type of asbestos fiber). If your product did contain asbestos, you hope that you don’t become one of the 12,000-15,000 Americans who die each year from asbestos-related causes.

This isn’t like the mythical bad guy hiding razor blades in your kids’ Halloween apples. This is like if apples and razor blades naturally grew together so that sometimes razor blades just made it into apples, and every year thousands of kids died from swallowing those razor blades.

If that was happening, the solution wouldn’t be to have the FDA pull a sample of apples off the shelves to see if there were razor blades in them. It would be to decide that apples weren’t worth the risk.

So what makes talc different? Well, nothing, really. It’s used in cosmetic products to absorb moisture and make them feel silky. Not exactly worth getting cancer. Especially when there are plenty of safe talc-free options.

Johnson & Johnson’s decision to get talc out of its baby powders sold in the U.S. and Canada is important. But there’s more to do to protect ourselves from toxic chemicals in the products we use every day.

  1. Johnson & Johnson should eliminate talc in all of its baby powder worldwide, not just in the U.S. and Canada. Other companies should follow suit.
  2. At the same time, to ensure that our health is not dependent on the good will of cosmetic companies, the FDA should ban talc in consumer products.

While we take these concrete steps, we should also ask ourselves: does any cosmetic product need to be rushed to market so urgently that we should forego pre-market safety-testing and FDA approval? I, for one, could do without being a human guinea pig.


Danielle Melgar

Former Food & Agriculture, Advocate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund