Thursday, June 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Study: Cancer-Causing Asbestos Lurking in Some Talc-Based Cosmetics

Researchers who recently found asbestos in 15% of talc-based cosmetics samples analyzed in a small study say that current screening methods for the cancer-causing carcinogen are inadequate.

(CN) — Researchers who recently found asbestos in 15% of talc-based cosmetics samples analyzed in a small study say that current screening methods for the cancer-causing carcinogen are inadequate. 

In a new study, commissioned by the Environmental Working Group and published in the journal Environmental Health Insights, researchers criticize the methods used by the cosmetic industry to screen their talc-based products and propose a swift correction.

"Many well-known brands use talc in body and facial powders that can be inhaled," said Nneka Leiba, who leads the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living Science team and was one of the study’s authors. 

Leiba said the nonprofits “Skin Deep” online database has identified more than 2,000 personal care products that contain talc and more than 1,000 of those are loose or pressed powders that could be inhaled.

“It's troubling to think how many Americans have been using talc-based cosmetics products potentially contaminated with asbestos,” Leiba said.

Asbestos is a well known danger associated with talc-based cosmetics but such products do not have to be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration before going on the market.

Companies add talc to their powder-based products, such as eye shadows, blushes and foundations to achieve a smooth texture and to dilute the colors in some pigmented cosmetics. Talc is naturally soft and able to absorb moisture to reduce the appearance of oily skin. It can also be deadly. 

"Inhaling even the tiniest amount of asbestos in talc can cause mesothelioma and other deadly diseases, many years after exposure," said Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group and study co-author. "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."

Even small amounts of exposure can result in asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung and ovarian cancer. According to previous studies, more than 60% of women diagnosed with mesothelioma likely contracted it from chance exposure to asbestos. As the public becomes more informed and aware of these risks, the exposure rate in the U.S. has declined but people continue to be affected.

The death toll of mesothelioma has not changed considerably over the years, and it is claiming the lives of increasingly younger individuals. According to the study’s authors, the Environmental Working Group’s Action Fund has estimated from federal mortality data that approximately 15,000 Americans die annually from asbestos-caused illnesses.

The lab tests analyzed in the study were conducted by The Scientific Analytical Institute of Greensboro, North Carolina, a renowned laboratory for asbestos testing in commercial items. The lab tested 21 samples of eye shadow, foundation, blush, and face and body powders using electron microscopy, the recommended method by the Environmental Protection Agency that gives a much more accurate reading than the voluntary test currently used in the cosmetics industry.

"It is critical that the FDA develop a rigorous screening method for talc used in personal care products," said Sean Fitzgerald, an expert in asbestos testing and the head of Scientific Analytical Institute and another author on the study. "The lab repeatedly finds asbestos in products made with talc, including cosmetics marketed to children. It's outrageous that a precise method for testing personal care products for the presence of asbestos exists, but the cosmetics industry isn't required to use it."

In 2017, a series of lab tests discovered asbestos in several makeup products sold by the popular children’s retail stores Claire’s and Justice. More recently, Johnson & Johnson discontinued the use of talc-based baby powder in the U.S. and Canada in May of this year, following a significant volume of lawsuits citing it as the cause of millions of cancer cases. 

Talc-based products contaminated with asbestos are still frequently legal to sell due to a U.S. law stating that products may contain up to 1% of asbestos and still be considered asbestos free. This still leaves considerable amounts of asbestos fibers remaining in available products.

There is no U.S. law regulating the effective testing of talc-based products for asbestos, despite the government agreeing that exposure is never safe. The FDA recommends that companies choose their talc mining sites carefully.

One piece of legislation introduced to address this public health concern was the Children’s Product Warning Label Act of 2019, which was presented following the reports of asbestos in children’s makeup. Spearheaded by U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., the bill would have required companies to use only the most reliable testing methods to verify a product as asbestos free, or attach a warning label if otherwise. It failed to pass.

"While consumers should be alarmed and outraged, it's hardly a surprise, considering the federal law regulating the cosmetics industry has not been updated since 1938," said Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president for government affairs. "It's long past time for Congress to pass legislation mandating that all talc-based personal care products be rigorously tested and the cosmetics industry be required to put the public's safety first. The current system, which has allowed the cosmetics industry to operate beyond the reach of FDA's authority, must end."

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.