Once again, the talcum powder and health issues debate is back in the media as pharmaceutical giant Johnson&Johnson (J&J) announced the global discontinuation of its talcum-based baby powders from 2023.
J&J announced on August 11, 2022 that they would be replacing talc with cornstarch in their household baby powder.
This statement of change came two years after J&J switched to baby powders for the US and Canadian market in 2020 after sales slumped due to fears the powder could cause cancer.
It has long been suspected that the talcum powder in J&J’s household product may contain asbestos, a known carcinogen.
For the change in 2020 and the change announced in early August, J&J argued that the talcum powder used in their baby powder did not contain asbestos and was making the change due to reduced sales due to “misinformation” about possible health risks.
Despite their dismissal, J&J is currently facing nearly 40,000 lawsuits from US consumers alleging asbestos in their baby powder has caused ovarian cancer or mesothelioma.
Those injury lawsuits were put on hold after J&J created a liability-only subsidiary, soon announcing the company’s bankruptcy after all lawsuits were transferred to the subsidiary. The action sparked anger among consumers seeking compensation, with many accusing J&J of absolving the brand of responsibility.
In 2018, Reuters and The New York Times reported on internal company legal documents that suggested J&J executives since 1957 knew about asbestos contamination, but hid that information from regulators and the public. .
According to the report, at least three research groups detected asbestos in baby powder in the 1970s, but J&J did not notify the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of these findings.
What is talcum powder?
Talcum powder is finely ground talc in powder form. Talc is a natural mineral, extracted from the earth and composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen.
Talc is the softest mineral on earth. Its powder has a soft, silky texture and is generally considered safe for consumption.
Talcum powder absorbs moisture and odors and can also reduce friction, making it useful for keeping skin dry and helping to prevent diaper rash. Although talcum powder is used in baby powder, many women also use talcum powder as part of their daily skin care routine to prevent odor and control oil.
It therefore has many uses in cosmetics and personal care and can be used to absorb moisture, prevent caking, improve the texture of a product and make facial makeup opaque.
Medically, talc is a sclerosing agent; it acts as an irritant and can close areas of the lungs that are accumulating fluid by irritating the walls of the cavity, so that the cavity closes and there is no fluid accumulation.
Published scientific literature dating back to the 1960s has suggested a possible association between the use of talc-containing powders in the genital area and the incidence of ovarian cancer. Yet these studies have not conclusively demonstrated such a link, while health concerns related to possible asbestos contamination in talc have been raised since the 1970s due to the carcinogenic effects of asbestos. .
Talc and asbestos are made up of the same elements, although in different compositions.
In the environment, talc and asbestos naturally form close to each other, so talc deposits can be contaminated with asbestos, and it is difficult to separate them, which is why some Cosmetic and care products containing talcum powder are sometimes also found with traces of asbestos.
Health Risks of Talcum Powder
Although talc is generally benign for consumption, inhaling talc powder, especially in babies, can cause wheezing, coughing, chest pain, and possibly even death.
The asbestos present in some talcum powders has been accused of causing cancer and asbestosis in frequent users. Talc products have been associated with ovarian cancer and mesothelioma in talcum powder users and miners respectively.
Mesothelioma is cancer of the tissues that surround critical organs including the lungs, heart, stomach, ovaries and many others. It is colloquially known as asbestos cancer and primarily affects the tissues that line the lungs. Patients typically experience shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, and on x-rays there may be signs of fluid buildup in the tissues lining the lungs. Ovarian cancer in women who have been exposed to asbestos also primarily affects the mesothelial cells lining the ovaries.
The main routes of entry for asbestos are through inhalation and the genitals, although some studies suggest that asbestos fibers can also lodge in layers of the skin to form calluses. Personal protective equipment generally provides sufficient protection against asbestos exposure.
Studies indicate that asbestos can trigger chronic inflammation, leading to cancer and another disease called asbestosis, in the long run.
Asbestosis is the scarring of lung tissue, particularly the tiny air sacs that participate in gas exchange. Studies show that repeated scarring from asbestos exposure can cause hardening and thickening of lung tissue, leading to poorer air gas exchange and reduced lung function.
Asbestos triggers inflammation due to its toxic properties. As a foreign molecule, its presence triggers inflammatory immune cells to activate and eliminate the foreign body.
These immune cells surround the asbestos fibers and attempt to eat and break them down. This process often fails, resulting in the death of immune cells and more cell components containing asbestos fibers. This will cause a negative cycle where cellular components will trigger inflammation in more immune cells, and the cycle will continue, resulting in scarring of critical tissues along the way.
Asbestos can also accumulate in the lymph nodes; some bean-shaped and bean-sized structures located throughout the body. Many immune cells pass through the lymph nodes, which triggers the activation of more cells and attempts immune elimination of asbestos fibers.
However, the immune system cannot stay in constant inflammation. Repeated exposure to the same molecules can lead to immune cell fatigue. This means that in the long term, increased exposures to asbestos can lead to long-term changes in the immune response and may be the cause of asbestos cancers.
Asbestos fibers also carry transition metals, including iron. Iron can activate reactive oxygen species in the cell and damage cellular DNA. DNA damage in critical genes can cause further DNA damage. This can lead to changes in genes that activate and suppress cancer. For genes that promote cancer growth, altering their genes can further activate their action, while genes that suppress cancer can become obsolete after DNA damage.
Both of these changes can lead to further cancer progression, leading to malignant tumors.
Another study found that asbestos itself turns off tumor suppressor genes – essential genes that prevent cancers – which may also contribute to cancer growth.
It is very well understood that asbestos is dangerous and the mineral is highly regulated and banned in most countries. But talc products, although they pose a high risk of asbestos contamination, are significantly less regulated.
There are currently no laws regulating cosmetic-grade talc, and the FDA is not required to review cosmetic products and their ingredients, except for color additives.
In addition, the US government considers products containing 1% or less asbestos to be asbestos-free and may be labeled “asbestos-free.” Therefore, the only way to know if your product contains asbestos is to have it tested yourself.
Other talc products and talc alternatives
Talc has many uses.
Talcum powder is used in ceramics, paper, paints and plastics as a filler to smooth the texture and color of these products.
It is also used in powdered cosmetics and antiperspirants to control oil and odor.
For alternatives to talcum powder in cosmetics, starch and clay have been introduced into commercial products to replace talcum powder.
Kaolin clay can absorb both oil and water and is commonly used in cosmetics and skin care products.
Cornstarch, tapioca starch, and arrowroot starch also have similar properties to talcum powder with a smooth, silky texture. Some commercial baby powders contain starch.
However, pure cornstarch can increase fungal growth and may worsen yeast-based diaper rashes, so discontinue use if rashes do not improve a few days after use.
There are limited recommendations on the use of other starches, although studies have shown that tapioca and arrowroot starch may promote bacterial growth in the gut. When used on the skin, sweating in pure starch may promote bacterial and fungal growth and facial rashes; therefore, it is generally recommended as a rinse aid, rather than for long-lasting cosmetic purposes.
Baking powder is also absorbent, controls odors and is also antibacterial. However, in its pure form it can be abrasive on the skin, so consider mixing it with kaolin or cornstarch for a soft finish.