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First developed and marketed by Johnson and Johnson in the early 1900s, talcum powder quickly became a staple of personal hygiene, particularly among women who had little else to rely on for body odor control at the time.
A variety of food products and pharmaceuticals contain talc due to its thickening properties. Studies indicate that talc is safe when consumed (in small amounts) because it passes through the body quickly and remains unmodified as its processed and eliminated by the gastrointestinal system.
Made from a mineral (talc) comprised of oxygen, silicon, and magnesium, talc works well to absorb perspiration, reduce friction caused by clothing, keep sweaty feet dry, and prevent heat/moisture rashes. Early advertisements for talcum powder recommended women sprinkle the powder on their dress shields for better odor control. J&J also promoted the ability of talcum powder to control odors related to "feminine hygiene." Talc is also an ingredient in face powder, blush, eye shadow, and other cosmetics that are dispersed over the skin. It helps cosmetics spread easily over the skin and absorbs skin oils. Some dry shampoos and deodorants may also contain talc.
By the 1920s, Johnson and Johnson had combined talcum powder with corn starch to create the first baby powder. Both products were wildly popular and helped make Johnson and Johnson the leading manufacturer of hygiene and health products for women and infants.
But you’ve probably heard that talc can be dangerous. Why is that, and what would make talc "bad" anyway?
Excavators mining for talc learned early on that asbestos and talc (both minerals) were typically discovered in the earth side-by-side. When miners found a pocket of talc, it was often contaminated with asbestos. Varieties of asbestos include amosite, crocidolite, and chrysotile ("white asbestos"), an extremely toxic material that studies have found causes lung cancer, larynx cancer, and some gastrointestinal cancers. Respiratory exposure to any kind of asbestos over time is also known to significantly increase the risk of cancer.
Since the process of separating talc and asbestos would be expensive and time-consuming, J&J sold products containing talc corrupted with asbestos. Claims that Johnson and Johnson knew their talcum powder contained asbestos, but either denied or downplayed this fact, have been verified by various documents since. Although J&J knew early on that small amounts of asbestos were contaminating talc, it wasn't until 1968 that scientists officially detected fibrous talc and asbestos in talc products. An article published in The New York Post in 1971 finally informed the public that Mt. Sinai researchers found significant amounts of asbestos in talc.
In 1976, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA) asserted that the inherent definition of cosmetic talc did not obligate talc products be free of "detectable" asbestos, and to this day talc must be "non-detected" rather than "asbestos-free", or guaranteed 99.90% free of asbestos versus proposals for 99.99% from the U.S. FDA.
So is talc bad for you and your skin? The answer is no, with a few caveats.
Although highly refined, cosmetic-grade talc should be asbestos-free, ongoing testing on over-the-counter talc-containing products has detected trace amounts of white asbestos.
Since the U.S. FDA still does not conduct safety testing on talc products, it’s up to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel to provide guidance on using talcum powder and cosmetics. This essentially means that manufacturers of talc-containing products are overseeing the safety of their own products.
Talc is not necessarily "bad" for the skin. However, individuals with sensitive skin or allergies to talc may experience irritation or rash when talc is applied to the areas of the body where skin is thin and delicate. Talcum powder should not be applied on open wounds, rashes, psoriasis, or weeping eczema.
Additionally, talc users should be aware and take precautions to prevent breathing dust and particles during application.
Classification of talcum powder as a potential human carcinogen first occurred in 2006. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published peer-reviewed studies about women developing ovarian cancer from using talcum powder in their genital areas. However, neither the FDA nor other government agencies moved to add warnings to talcum powder.
IARC studies investigated hundreds of women who regularly applied talcum powder to their genitals, diaphragms, and sanitary napkins. Scientists speculated that talcum powder particles traveled upward into the fallopian tubes, uterus, and ovaries. Although the results of these studies were mixed, the IARC thought that enough evidence existed that suggested there may be a correlation between ovarian cancer and the use of talcum powder on female genitals (perineal use).
The American Cancer Society reports an array of inconclusive studies regarding the risk of talc miners developing serious respiratory diseases or lung cancer. Talc that has not been purified is almost always contaminated with asbestos, which has been established as a known carcinogen. Most consumer products today contain only purified talc.
The ACS also states that talc miners who go on to suffer from cancer may have been exposed to radon or other gases that could increase their risk of lung cancer.
Regular talcum powder should not be used to absorb oil produced by acne.
Talc can clog pores, induce an inflammatory response that may increase acne breakouts, and cause excessive skin dryness if overused.
Cosmetic face powders that contain negligible amounts of talc are available that incorporate salicylic acid and won't block pores.
Individuals with mild to moderate acne are recommended to consult with a dermatologist before using face powders, concealers, or liquid foundation. Those with severe acne should always ask their dermatologist if they can safely apply cosmetics containing talc.
In 2009, ovarian cancer survivor Deane Berg filed the first talcum powder lawsuit against J&J. Although J&J offered Ms. Berg nearly $1.5 million to settle the case out of court, she rejected the settlement after discovering J&J had inserted a confidentiality clause in documents. In other words, J&J would give her a big payout if she never revealed her ovarian cancer diagnosis.
Other talcum powder lawsuits against J&J include:
No lawsuits filed so far have claimed that J&J's talc-based products cause any other disease besides ovarian cancer.
Consequently, talc appears to be safely use-able on the skin as long as it is not used in the perineal area.
Currently, women who have filed J&J lawsuits are waiting for a bankruptcy judge to rule on a questionable bankruptcy plan entered in court by Johnson and Johnson. If the judge finds the bankruptcy plan legitimate, it will allow J&J to significantly diminish its future liability for ovarian cancer lawsuits. In addition, J&J's bankruptcy plan would immediately resolve nearly 40,000 pending lawsuits by transferring billions in assets to a "spin-off" company that would then also file for bankruptcy.
Is talc safe for your skin? Generally speaking, the answer is yes.
This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency