This week, The New York Times reported that Johnson & Johnson executives debated the safety of the company’s best-selling baby powder in a series of internal memos spanning decades, expressing concern over the possibility of asbestos contamination of its main ingredient, talc.
Shared in thousands of pages of documents released by Johnson & Johnson under court order, findings included positive test results for small amounts of the carcinogenic substance in some of its raw talc and finished powders between at least 1971 and the early 2000s, according to Reuters, which examined many of the documents and reported their contents for the first time. Ultimately, company executives and experts chose to not disclose their findings, to regulators or the public.
Representatives of Johnson & Johnson denied the claims in an email response to Reuters, claiming that thousands of independent tests prove that their talc does not contain asbestos and that any suggestions that the company hid information about the safety of the ingredient is false. The alarming debate arrives on the heels of several lawsuits against the baby powder company, as well as this summer’s verdict against them, which ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay a record $4.69 billion to a group of 22 women and their families. The plaintiffs in that case argued that asbestos in some of the brand’s baby and body powders led them to develop ovarian cancer. Several of the women have died.
In a country that is often decades behind Europe in regulating commonplace ingredients in cosmetics, the questions raised in court were what Johnson & Johnson knew and when. And while those facts are still the subject of debate, pressing questions remain about what lurks in the medicine cabinet. How dangerous is talcum powder—one of America’s most ubiquitous personal-care products? And what do we need to do to be safe?
The world’s softest mineral, talc is used in a host of cosmetics, like eyeshadow and blush, as well as body dusting powders. In its natural form, some talc contains asbestos, a known carcinogen, but according to the American Cancer Society, commercial talcum powders used in homes have been manufactured and tested to be asbestos-free since the 1970s. Still, studies conducted to assess their safety in consumer products have yielded contradictory findings. Questions remain as to whether airborne talc in its unpurified form could cause lung cancer in miners who extract the mineral from quarries, but no increased risk of lung cancer has been reported in cosmetic use—meaning there’s no reason to believe your talc-based setting powder or dry shampoo is unsafe. Additional research has focused on the potential connection between talc’s use as a feminine hygiene powder and ovarian cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, one prevailing theory is that small mineral particles could travel up through the fallopian tubes and ovaries, inflaming the tissue, which can encourage cancer growth. But no major study has examined how talc might cause cancer, only if there is an elevated risk associated with its use.
“The evidence is really sort of poor,” explains Sarah Temkin, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist specializing in ovarian cancer at Johns Hopkins University. Though talc is on the National Cancer Institute’s list as an unclear risk factor for ovarian cancer, alongside alcohol and diet, Temkin is not convinced talc is dangerous, and here’s why. A study published in 1982 by ob-gyn Daniel W. Cramer, M.D., to assess talc’s safety relied on patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer recalling their own use of the product—a less reliable way to collect data than studies based on controlled scientific observation. That study found that women who used talc as a feminine hygiene product were three times more likely to develop ovarian cancer as women who did not.
But in later research, no link between talc use and endometrial or ovarian cancer was found. That indicates to Temkin that the original linkage may have been the result of inaccurate data. “They are just old studies that have left doubt in people’s minds as to whether or not it’s a risk factor,” she says.
The debate over talc’s safety will continue, as the company is purportedly facing more than 11,700 plaintiffs now claiming that the Johnson & Johnson ingredient caused their cancers. So what should consumers do in the meantime? While certainty about talc’s real risks remains evasive, Temkin reminds her patients that “ovarian cancer is still a very rare event,” and that it’s best to speak to your physician about your individual risk factors. Ob-gyn Dr. Carmit Archibald, M.D., co-owner of Upper East Side Gynecology and affiliated with Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says that for a safer alternative to talc, “cornstarch would be great.” She adds, however, that powders should really only be used in preventing or treating specific conditions if directed by a doctor; they are not otherwise recommended as part of a daily hygiene routine.
The takeaway? If you’re concerned, try starch-based, talc-free products, available at stores like Whole Foods for a noncontroversial alternative, or simply skip the powder—and the stress—altogether.