baby powder

Last week Johnson & Johnson was ordered by a Missouri state jury to pay $72m in damages to the family of a woman whose death from ovarian cancer was linked to her use of their talc-based Baby Powder and Shower to Shower.

It is the first time that J&J has had to pay damages, although there has been controversy around the safety of talc for decades. J&J is now facing over 1,000 other law suits claiming studies have linked its Johnson’s Baby Powder and its Shower-to-Shower product to ovarian cancer.

Talc is not confined to baby powder. It is in mineral makeup, dry shampoos and many other cosmetic products. So should you be concerned and what are the alternatives?

Talc Basics

Talcum powder is made from talc, a mineral comprised of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. It is the softest mineral available, hence its widespread use in cosmetics. Surprisingly, I read that talc does not have a great affinity for water and it is not that great at absorbing it (source).

Talc & Asbestos

In its natural form, some talc contains asbestos, known to cause cancers in and around the lungs when inhaled. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), all talcum products used in homes in the United States have been asbestos-free since the 1970s. Actually, this has never been regulated and the FDA decided to take a look just a few years ago. A total of 34 cosmetic products containing talc were selected, including eye shadow, blush, foundation, face powder, and body powder.

Frustratingly, it looked at only four talc suppliers and therefore concluded that it’s survey did “not prove that most or all talc or talc-containing cosmetic products currently marketed in the United States are likely to be free of asbestos contamination.” For what’s its worth, Johnson’s Baby Powder was deemed asbestos free.

Talc and Ovarian Cancer

Asbestos-free talc does not necessarily get a clean bill of health though. The ACS says, “Many studies in women have looked at the possible link between talcum powder and cancer of the ovary. Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase. Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk. But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person’s memory of talc use many years earlier. Two prospective cohort studies, which would not have the same type of potential bias, have not found an increased risk.”

Another study suggested genital talcum powder use may slightly increase the risk of endometrial (uterine) cancer in women who are past menopause. But other studies have not found such a link.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classifies the perineal (genital) use of talc-based body powder as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Cosmetic Use of Talc

Talc can be a major component of face powders, eye shadow and blush — sometimes comprising up to 70%.

Alternatives to Talc

The ACS suggests using cornstarch-based cosmetic products instead, saying there is no evidence at this time linking cornstarch powders with any form of cancer. Indeed a 2000 study said that “powder containing cornstarch exclusively is not predicted to be a risk factor for ovarian cancer.” However, some folks are concerned about much corn production being GMO and suggest other options such as kaolin (a white cosmetic clay) or arrowroot powder.

As it happens, there’s a talc-free version of Johnson’s Baby Powder with corn starch and zinc oxide. The latter ingredient is best known as a mineral sunscreen, but it is also widely used in mineral makeup formulations as a thickener and whitener.

Boron Nitrade is an option for face powders as it is light diffusing and can also absorb excess oil in the face and disperse pigment evenly. 

Silica also frequently turns up in mineral makeup that boasts being talc-free. It is used for its ability to absorb oil and to prevent caking and clumping. Amorphous, synthetic silica used in cosmetics and other personal care products does not contain crystalline silica, and is generally considered safe for use.

Other natural and safe options include rice powder, oat flour and silk powder. Unfortunately, rice starch can get sticky and retain bacteria and this is one of the reasons why talc elbowed it out of many formulations (source).