Baby powder is as common as diapers. But is it really safe?
Leading baby powder manufacturer Johnson & Johnson announced Tuesday that it would voluntarily discontinue sales of talc-based baby powder in the United States and Canada to focus on products with a higher priority during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Demand for talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in North America has been declining due in large part to changes in consumer habits and fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising,'' the company said in a statement.
This comes months after the company was ordered by a New Jersey jury to pay $750 million to four plaintiffs — a fine reduced to $186 million by a judge — in a lawsuit where plaintiffs alleged baby powder caused their cancer, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal reported. The ruling was the latest in the thousands of lawsuits that alleged baby powder use led to ovarian cancer.
"We believe the jury in their verdict was speaking directly to (Johnson & Johnson) CEO (Alex) Gorsky, who testified during the trial," said Chris Placitella from Cohen, Placitella and Roth, the plaintiff's firm, in a statement. "We hope this verdict will have a positive impact on public health going forward."
Johnson & Johnson has repeatedly emphasized the safety of its talc-based products. In the months following an October recall of a batch of baby powder revealed to have chrysotile asbestos, the company released multiple statements confirming no asbestos in their product.
Baby powder safety concerns have received such public scrutiny that the Food and Drug Administration held a hearing in February on the testing of asbestos in talc, the main ingredient in the Johnson & Johnson brand of baby powder.
It's the first time since 1971 that the FDA has evaluated regulations surrounding the testing of asbestos in talc in a public hearing.
Here are some answers to common questions about talc products:
What is talc and what is it used for?
Talc is a naturally occurring silicate mineral composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen, per the FDA. It's known as the softest mineral known to man.
It is similar in structure to asbestos, and the two are often found together in mines.
The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association says there are two different forms of it: industrial talc, which is often used in automotive plastics and rubber, and cosmetic talc.
Cosmetic talc has been widely used in baby powder. It's also used in cosmetics such as eye shadow, blush and foundation to absorb moisture, make makeup opaque and improve a product's feel, per the FDA.
Do studies link baby powder and cancer?
That remains unclear.
Findings as far back as the early 1970s have tied talc-based baby powder to ovarian cancer, according to the FDA. Recent reports from Reuters and the peer-reviewed journal Epidemiology have found that historical concerns over talc and ovarian cancer were downplayed by industry groups.
A comprehensive study of 250,000 women led by the U.S. government and published in January in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found no strong evidence of a link between baby powder and ovarian cancer. The study, however, did not differentiate between talc-based baby powder and other baby powders that were made with alternatives such as cornstarch.
The American Cancer Society notes that other studies, using a different method from the JAMA study, have found "a small increase in risk" for ovarian cancer when women apply talc powder to their genitals.
Meanwhile, the International Agency for Research on Cancer – which is part of the World Health Organization – has classified talc as possibly carcinogenic.
A study published in October also found that contaminated talc has links to mesothelioma, a rare cancer that's usually linked to asbestos.
What about talc in makeup?
Again, it depends. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics designates talc in its "Red List" of things to avoid in blush, eye shadow and face powder, citing the possible risks of baby powder for women.
Further, some talc contaminated with asbestos was found in makeup targeted at children and tweens. In 2019, a bill was introduced by Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., that would require all cosmetics targeting children undergo stricter testing or else have a warning label.
The Environmental Working Group says that talc-based cosmetics can be harmful, noting that contaminated talc can cause health risks long after its use. However, skincare and cosmetics brand Paula's Choice, which says that talc in makeup "does not present a health hazard."
But it may not matter, anyway. Cosmetic chemist Victor Casale, who previously worked for MAC Cosmetics, told Byrdie that he changed the formula for a popular powder foundation for aesthetic reasons, not safety ones. The "dry" look talc-based cosmetics provide, he said, is no longer in line with current trends in makeup.
How is talc currently regulated?
Federal regulations on talc are relatively lax. Under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, per the FDA, most cosmetics made with talc do not have to be tested or approved by the FDA. They also do not require manufacturers to disclose safety information.
Current guidelines state that talc cannot have more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of lead and 3 parts per million of arsenic.
Crucially, they also cannot require manufacturers and retailers to recall products. The recall issued by Johnson and Johnson of its baby powder in October was a "voluntary recall," meaning that it was of the company's own accord.
"Rather than require a warning or take other steps to reduce the risk that products made with talc could contain asbestos, FDA instead adopted the honor system that permits companies to use tools that do not detect all asbestos fibers and which continue to put consumers at risk," said Scott Faber, EWG's senior vice president for government affairs.
Faber was present at the February FDA hearing.
Is it safe to use baby powder on babies?
Contrary to its label, pediatricians advise parents not to use baby powder – whether it's made with talc or not – for children and infants.
The American Association of Pediatrics recommends against using baby powder, period. Per the organization's Red Book, its reference guide to pediatric diseases, "parents should not use talc-containing products for infant and child care."
It may cause pneumoconiosis, a lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust – which the AAP notes may happen if a baby powder container accidentally spills.
Amid concerns: Why do we even have baby powder anymore?
If powder is used to prevent diaper rash, however, pediatricians advise using it as far from a baby as possible.
“Use as little as possible, probably put it on your hands and transfer to the diaper area or gently sprinkle to the diaper area," said Mayo Clinic pediatrician David Soma.
Contributing: Charisse Jones, Cara Kelly and Mary Bowerman, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is talc baby powder safe? Does it cause cancer? Questions, answered