Several decades ago, mesothelioma was a little-known type of cancer that didn’t even have a name until the beginning of the 20th century. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that this rare-but-often-deadly cancer was definitively linked to asbestos exposure.
Since then, the connection between mesothelioma and asbestos has been the study of intense scientific research that has revealed it is the cause of upwards of 80% mesothelioma cases. While most people may be aware of the presence of asbestos in things like insulation and other building materials, there are many other products that can also contain the substance.
In fact, a commonly used personal care product, talcum powder, has been suspected of causing or contributing to the development of mesothelioma in many people for decades, but talc remains in widespread use. Here’s what you should know about this potential connection and whether it’s a cause for concern for you and your family.
What Is Talcum Powder?
Just like asbestos, talc (the substance used to make talcum powder) is a naturally occurring mineral. While they are not chemically related, deposits of these minerals are often found in proximity to each other. This makes it possible for one substance to contaminate the other during the mining process.
Mined talc is crushed and made into a powder that’s used in talcum powder, baby powder, cosmetics, makeup and other toiletries. It can be used to absorb excess moisture or to improve the texture of a personal care product.
Here’s a look at some of the products that often contain talc:
- Baby powder
- Adult body powder
- Eye shadow
- Powdered makeup
- Foundation (liquid and powdered)
Not all cosmetic products and toiletries contain talc, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has regulatory authority over many products that are sold in the U.S., does not review cosmetics or their ingredients before they are marketed. However, since early in 2019, multiple brands have recalled products and the agency has warned consumers not to use them because asbestos has been detected in samples. This includes eye shadow and other products from Claire’s and Beauty Plus as well as one lot of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder.
Long before those warnings, federal regulators were aware of the potential for talc-based products to contain asbestos. As far back as the early 1970s, the FDA had been studying the presence of asbestos in talc-based baby powder. In 1973, the FDA established a rule that talc-containing products must be free of asbestos but testing of products was left to manufacturers.
The tie between asbestos and mesothelioma is well-established, but research and recent lawsuits have also cast suspicion on talc-based products. As mentioned, the two substances are often found in proximity in their natural form, and talc products have repeatedly been found to have been contaminated by asbestos.
Asbestos in any form is dangerous for humans because the fibrous substance is easily inhaled and ingested. Contact with asbestos is the primary known cause of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer affecting the mesothelium, a layer of cells that surrounds most internal organs and bodily cavities.
While it’s a relatively rare form of cancer, mesothelioma is particularly pernicious because by the time it’s detected, the disease is often in advanced stages. Even when it’s found relatively early, the five-year survival rate for pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lungs, is only 18%.
Studies have not linked talc directly with mesothelioma; rather, the connection is believed to be related to asbestos contamination in products containing natural talc.
Talcum Powder Products and Lawsuits
Many companies have faced lawsuits over allegations that their talc-based products caused cancer, and multiple verdicts have been reached in favor of those making allegations. The most highly publicized lawsuits have surrounded Johnson & Johnson, which in the fall of 2020 proposed a $100 million settlement to end about 1,000 of the some-19,000 lawsuits it’s facing.
Other companies that have faced allegations over their powder products include Mennen, Ammens and Clubman, while companies including Avon, Revlon, Merle Norman, Chanel, Elizabeth Arden, L’Oréal, Lancôme, Maybelline, Coty, Yardley and Max Factor have been subject to accusations over many of their cosmetic products. Popular products that have been implicated include Jean Nate, Cashmere Bouquet, Charles of the Ritz and Ultima.
Chanel and Revlon have said they’ve removed talc from their body products, while L’Oréal has pledged to find a replacement for talc. An investigation by the Reuters news agency in 2018 alleged that Johnson & Johnson had long been aware that its talc-based powder products sometimes contained asbestos but that the company concealed this fact from regulators and consumers.
In addition to its proposal to settle about 1,000 cases, J&J has been on the receiving end of court verdicts in cases alleging that the company’s talc-based products cause mesothelioma. The company separately has also faced lawsuits claiming that its products caused ovarian cancer, and a verdict in one of those cases stands at more than $2 billion.
What to Watch For
If you’ve ever used a powder-based personal care product, makeup or other toiletry product that contains powder, you may be concerned about whether you’ve been exposed to asbestos without your knowledge. While not every batch of natural talc mined from the earth is contaminated by asbestos, there are a few things to look out for. If, for example, you’ve used products from any of the companies mentioned here (Johnson & Johnson, Revlon, L’Oréal, Chanel and Avon are the most popular), you should consider discontinuing its use.
In some cases, companies have recalled specific batches of products that have been found to be contaminated with asbestos and finding out if you have purchased one is easy. To start, look at the list of ingredients, as companies are required to list all ingredients included in their products. Additionally, labels should also include a batch code, which is generally stamped on to the product or the label near the barcode. Plugging this code into an internet search can help you find out if any consumer alerts or recalls have been issued.
For those who are certain they’ve used talc-based products tainted with asbestos, the chances of having developed mesothelioma are small, but there are some symptoms of which you should be mindful, as early detection is the key to long-term health.
The symptoms of mesothelioma vary by the area of the body affected, but the two most common types that talc users should be concerned with are pleural, which affects the lungs, and peritoneal, which affects the abdomen. In both cases, it’s believed that these types of mesothelioma are caused by either inhaling asbestos or accidentally ingesting it. Anybody who has ever used a powder-based product has likely experienced inhaling the fine particles or even accidentally getting them in their mouths.
Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include chest pain, coughing and shortness of breath, while peritoneal mesothelioma often manifests as stomach pain, swelling and nausea.
European Respiratory Review, Malignant pleural mesothelioma: history, controversy and future of a manmade epidemic. (2015.) Retrieved by https://err.ersjournals.com/content/24/135/115
National Organization for Rare Disorders, Rare Disease Database, Mesothelioma. (2017.) Retrieved from https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/mesothelioma/
Food and Drug Administration, FDA Advises Consumers to Stop Using Certain Cosmetic Products. (2020.) Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-recalls-alerts/fda-advises-consumers-stop-using-certain-cosmetic-products
Reuters, Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder, (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/johnsonandjohnson-cancer/
Time Magazine, A New Study Suggests Tainted Talcum Powder Can Cause a Rare Cancer. Here’s How That Could Play Out in the Courtroom. (2019.) Retrieved from https://time.com/5692129/talcum-powder-mesothelioma/
Reuters, Exclusive: Chanel, Revlon, L’Oréal pivoting away from talc in some products. (2020.) Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chanel-talc-powder-exclusive-idUSKBN23G0GK