What Is Talcum Powder?
Talcum powder consists primarily of talc, a soft mineral that forms naturally and is composed of hydrated magnesium silicate. Talc can be green, white or gray and has a texture like soap.
Manufacturers grind talc down until it’s a fine powder that absorbs moisture and reduces friction. Talcum powder became popular as an ingredient in baby powder, cosmetics and deodorant for its ability to prevent chafing and skin rashes, as well as disguise odor.
For more than 100 years, Johnson & Johnson has been the most famous name in talcum powder products, mainly through its line of baby powders. Men and women of all ages use baby powder and other talc-containing products routinely.
Is Talcum Powder Dangerous?
Talc dust can irritate the respiratory system, causing coughs, chest pain and shortness of breath. Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital caution that even breathing in talcum powder that isn’t contaminated with asbestos can lead to lung problems or death.
The World Health Organization classifies genital (perineal) use of talc as possibly carcinogenic to humans. The organization also classifies asbestos-contaminated talc as definitely carcinogenic to humans. Some consumer and industrial products have contained dangerous levels of asbestos-contaminated talc.
Potential Health Risks of Talcum Powder
Both uncontaminated talcum powder and asbestos-contaminated talc are associated with a variety of serious medical conditions. Inhalation and direct perineal contact both pose health risks.
- Lung Cancer: Studies have shown excess cases of lung cancer in talc miners throughout the world, and these studies found asbestos in talc samples.
- Mesothelioma: Asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma. Asbestos-contaminated talc has been linked to mesothelioma cases.
- Ovarian Cancer: Studies have found an association between pure talc and ovarian cancer, particularly asbestos-contaminated talcum powder.
- Talcosis or Talc Pneumoconiosis: A pulmonary disorder like asbestosis and silicosis, its linked in studies to mining and milling asbestos-contaminated talc. A handful of talcosis cases linked to cosmetic talc products have also been described in medical literature.
Those primarily at risk of these adverse health effects include workers exposed to talc during its production or its industrial use. Parents should not use talcum powder on babies because of the risk of aspiration that may lead to death.
After using baby powder as part of a regular hygiene routine, thousands of women filed lawsuits against J&J and other baby powder manufacturers. These claims allege that repeated use of talc led to ovarian cancer.
Talcum Powder and Mesothelioma
Talc contaminated with asbestos can cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers. A decades-long latency period of 20 to 60 years is associated with malignant mesothelioma.
The risk of developing an asbestos-related illness through contaminated talc exposure depends on the duration and amount of exposure. The risk is dose-dependent, which means that it increases with duration and higher levels of asbestos exposure. Long-term exposure to low-level asbestos concentrations can cause cancer, and so can short-term exposure to high-level concentrations.
Talc and asbestos can naturally form so closely together that mining practices cannot keep them separated. This fact has been documented in geology books as early as 1872.
Even though not every talc deposit is contaminated with asbestos, unfortunately, many of them are contaminated. Talc deposits tend to contain highly carcinogenic (cancer-causing) forms of asbestos, such as tremolite or anthophyllite. These forms are more carcinogenic than chrysotile, the most-used type of asbestos.
Asbestos-Contaminated Talc Research
Higher levels of contamination carry a higher risk of mesothelioma. Different grades of talc contain varying levels of asbestos contamination. Industrial talc has the highest asbestos levels reaching 50% to 70%. Testing of cosmetic talc since the late 1960s has revealed contamination levels ranging from zero to 30% asbestos.
- January 2023: Researchers described 166 cases of mesothelioma in people who had substantial exposure to cosmetic talc products. In 122 cases, cosmetic talc was the only known source of asbestos exposure.
- May 2021: Italian researchers published a review of primary ovarian mesothelioma and presented a case of a patient who described perineal use of talcum powder from 1933 to 1980.
- April 2021: A review of the inhalation toxicity of talc reported a rise in cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer among talc miners and millers, as well as increased instances of mesothelioma and asbestosis in metal casting workers using asbestos-contaminated talc.
- March 2021: One case series described 75 patients with pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma whose only known exposure to asbestos was through contaminated talcum powder.
- 2019: A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine presented case studies of 33 people with mesothelioma whose only exposure to asbestos was using asbestos-contaminated talcum powder.
- 2002: An exposure study published in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health found excess cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related lung diseases among talc miners in upstate New York. The mines involved in the study are in the counties of St. Lawrence and Jefferson, the hub of which was Gouverneur, where R.T. Vanderbilt Company Inc. operated a talc mine. Researchers say the talc mines in this area contain asbestos and asbestiform minerals.
Asbestos exposure is a concern with talcum powder use because talc and asbestos are minerals that develop under similar conditions. Talc is mined from the earth, and many, if not most, talc deposits naturally contain asbestos.
Finding asbestos-free talc deposits throughout the world has been challenging for manufacturers. A Johnson & Johnson company memo from 1969 unsealed through litigation said it was normal for tremolite asbestos to occur in U.S. talc deposits. By this time, the company had spent more than a decade purchasing talc mines throughout the world in search of a pure source.
Who Is at Risk of Asbestos-Contaminated Talc Exposure?
Children, adult consumers and workers in specific industries are at risk of exposure to asbestos-contaminated talcum powder. Tests as recent as 2018 and as far back as 2000 have revealed asbestos-contaminated talcum powder in children’s toys and makeup.
- Barbers and Hairdressers: Hairdressers, barbers and their family members are at risk of exposure to cosmetic-grade talcum powder used to prevent chafing and irritation after haircuts.
- Ceramics Workers: Talc is a filler in ceramics and can improve thermal shock resistance to provide strength after the firing process.
- Children: Contaminated toys have included crayons, modeling clay and amateur crime lab kits. Contaminated children’s makeup was sold at Justice and Claire’s stores.
- Consumers: Contaminated talcum powder risk for adults primarily comes from cosmetics and personal care products, including makeup, body powders and shaving products.
- Paint Makers and Industrial Paint Sprayers: In paint, talc offers a layer of weather and corrosion resistance.
- Talc Miners and Millers: Those who work with talc in mines and mills likely face the highest exposure to the raw form of the mineral and higher amounts of nearby asbestos.
Anyone who has used talc consistently for many years, or has a known history of asbestos exposure, should talk with their doctor at the first sign of any respiratory symptoms. Additionally, you may want to seek the opinion of a mesothelioma specialist or a pulmonologist with experience in asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos-Contaminated Talc in Johnson’s Baby Powder
In May 2020, Johnson & Johnson announced it would stop selling its talc-based baby powder in the U.S. and Canada in favor of a cornstarch-based version. The company claimed the decision to change was the result of a decline in sales and “misinformation” around the product’s safety.
In 2022, the company announced it would also halt all sales of the talc-based version worldwide. This was a reversal of J&J’s previously announced plan to continue international sales of talc-based baby powder because demand remained high.
The decision to end sales of its talc-based baby powder followed reports from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 about asbestos contamination in a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Powder. This report forced the company to issue a recall of the batch associated with the bottle.
Additional Talc Products Containing Asbestos
Talc products containing asbestos have included personal hygiene products, cosmetics, children’s toys and industrial talc products. Talc is a common ingredient in many home and industrial goods. The most widely used consumer talc product is talcum powder.
In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found asbestos in nine of 52 personal hygiene and makeup products. Between 1948 and 2017, 66% of 1,032 cosmetic talc products tested through litigation were positive for asbestos.
- Beauty Plus Global Inc.
- Imerys Talc America Inc.
- Johnson & Johnson
- Shulton Co. (now owned by Procter & Gamble)
- Vanderbilt Minerals
- Whittaker, Clark & Daniels
Contamination levels of asbestos in talc products have ranged from trace amounts in cosmetics to significant levels reaching 50% and higher in industrial products such as Nytal.
Not every talc product contains asbestos, but it’s impossible to detect on your own. Only testing can reveal if a product is contaminated. The FDA’s follow-up testing of cosmetic talc products in 2021 and 2022 revealed no asbestos in 100 samples.
Talc in Makeup
In addition to talcum powder, cosmetic-grade talc is in many cosmetic products, including foundation, creams and moisturizers, eye shadow, blush and mascara. Cosmetic-grade talc is approximately 98% pure talc.
- Beauty Glazed Gorgeous Me Eye Shadow Tray Palette
- City Color Cosmetics Timeless Beauty Palette
- Claire’s Rainbow Glitter Heart-Shaped Makeup Set
- Claire’s Pink Glitter Palette with Eyeshadow & Lip Gloss
- JoJo Siwa Makeup Set
- Justice Just Shine Shimmer Powder
In November 2020, the Environmental Working Group found asbestos-contaminated talc in three out of 21 cosmetics samples tested. The FDA found asbestos in nine out of 52 cosmetics samples in 2019.
Several cases of talc contamination involved children’s makeup sold by national retailers Justice and Claire’s in 2017 and 2018. Other children’s toys containing asbestos-contaminated talc have included crayons, modeling clay and crime-scene kits.
Industrial Talc Products
Industrial talc is used in producing many modern products, such as paint and glazes, to improve texture and enhance matting and paint adhesion. In addition, the paper industry uses talc to enhance printability and reduce surface friction. Wastewater treatment plants also use talc to purify water.
- Anti-caking agent in animal feed
- Artware and finishing glazes
- Ceramic toilets, sinks and tiles
- Clay and pottery
- Crayons and chalk
- Electrical cables and switchboards
- Household appliances
- Jointing compounds, putties and adhesives
- Paper and ink products
- Plastic and rubber automotive parts
- Rubber gloves
Industrial-grade talc contains other minerals in varying quantities, depending on where it’s sourced. For example, the industrial talc product used in ceramics known as Nytal 100 contained 30% talc, 40% tremolite, 20% serpentine chrysotile and 10% anthophyllite asbestos.
Lawsuits for Talc Asbestos Exposure
Plaintiffs diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses and surviving family members of those exposed to contaminated-talc products are filing talc lawsuits. Courts have awarded millions of dollars in recent talc lawsuits.
Records revealed in lawsuits show that some of these manufacturers and talc suppliers, such as Vanderbilt Minerals, Imerys Talc America and Whittaker, Clark & Daniels, were aware of asbestos contamination and tried to cover it up. In one example, Imerys blended its talc with other sources of talc to dilute the asbestos concentration.
- Avon: In December 2022, a California jury ordered Avon and a forklift company to pay $52.1 million to Rita-Ann Chapman. She claimed using Avon products throughout her life exposed her to asbestos and caused her to develop mesothelioma.
- Cashmere Bouquet: Colgate-Palmolive paid $13 million in 2015 to a woman who developed mesothelioma using Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder.
- Desert Flower: Whittaker, Clark & Daniels paid $16.5 million in 2017 to Florence Nemeth, who claimed she developed peritoneal mesothelioma from using Desert Flower Dusting Powder.
- Imerys & Vanderbilt: Imerys Talc America and Vanderbilt Minerals paid $22 million in 2017 to the estate of a man who died of mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos-contaminated talc used to make paint.
- Johnson & Johnson: J&J has paid billions in one mass tort lawsuit and millions in individual cases over asbestos contamination in its baby powder and Shower to Shower products. In a July 2023 baby powder lawsuit, a California jury ordered the company to pay $18.8 million to a 24-year-old man who claimed he developed mesothelioma using Johnson’s Baby Powder since childhood.
- Old Spice: In May 2021, a California Superior Court jury ordered Whittaker, Clark & Daniels to pay $4.8 million to Willie McNeal Jr., who claimed he developed mesothelioma using Old Spice talcum powder for more than 20 years. In 2016, Whittaker was involved in an $18 million talc verdict awarded to Philip Depoian. Philip claimed he developed mesothelioma from exposure to Old Spice talcum powder and other brands used at his father’s barbershop.
Many companies sourced their talc from asbestos-contaminated mines, including sites in New York, North Carolina, Alabama, Vermont and northern Italy. Some of the products sold in the U.S. that tested positive for asbestos, including children’s makeup sold by Claire’s stores, were made in China, which has no regulations for asbestos or talc.
Compensation is available to people who develop mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos-contaminated talcum powder through a personal injury lawsuit. If you’ve lost a loved one to an asbestos-related disease, you may be eligible to file a wrongful death claim. Settlements resolve some of these lawsuits, and others resolve through a jury trial.
J&J Talc Litigation
Asbestos lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson have cost the company billions in settlements and jury verdicts. In April 2022, U.S. federal Judge Michael Kaplan ruled that, although J&J’s bankruptcy plan was the most notable of its kind, it did not halt a class-action lawsuit workers filed over industrial talc in the 1980s.
Judge Kaplan rejected J&J’s second bankruptcy plan in July 2023. A federal appeals court rejected the first plan in January 2023. The January ruling allowed J&J talc lawsuits to return to civil courts.
In October 2021, J&J created a subsidiary to absorb its talc liabilities. The subsidiary declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and will establish a plan to settle ongoing and potential future talc lawsuits. Asbestos manufacturers similarly use bankruptcy proceedings to create asbestos trust funds.
J&J settled roughly 1,000 talc lawsuits in October 2020 for more than $100 million. For example, the Missouri Court of Appeals ordered the company in June 2020 to pay $2.1 billion to 22 women who claimed Johnson’s Baby Powder caused them to develop ovarian cancer. The company also paid out millions in individual lawsuits, including $325 million in 2019 to Donna Olsen, who claimed she developed mesothelioma after using Johnson’s Baby Powder.
UK Residents File Talc Lawsuits
Residents of the United Kingdom began filing talc lawsuits in U.S. courts in 2019. Rulings from these cases determined that U.S. courts are the best venue for U.K. residents’ talc lawsuits. U.K. women have received multimillion-pound awards since these rulings.
In 2019, Hanna Louise Fletcher filed the first U.K. talc lawsuit in New York City courts. It claimed she developed mesothelioma at the age of 45. The lawsuit said she used her mother’s talc products as a child. It also claimed she purchased contaminated talc products in the U.S. while on vacation.
The judge ruled that the case should remain in New York because it’s the defendants’ principal place of business. The fact that the plaintiff purchased products in New York also played a role in the judge’s ruling.
Talcum Powder and Asbestos FAQs
- Is talcum powder safe to use?
Many companies, including Johnson & Johnson, claim that talc is safe for cosmetic and personal hygiene products worldwide. However, recent research and multiple cancer organizations warn that contaminated talcum powder can increase the risk of mesothelioma, ovarian cancer and other malignancies. Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital caution that breathing in uncontaminated talcum powder can lead to lung problems or death.
- How can I protect myself from asbestos exposure in talc products?
The best way to protect yourself from asbestos in talc is to not use talc-containing products. If you must use talc but are worried about asbestos, following the Occupational Safety & Health Administration guidelines for asbestos workers will reduce exposure. For example, protections include using a respirator mask with a HEPA-filter and wearing disposable clothing, shoe covers and goggles.
- What are some safe alternatives to talcum powder?
The most common alternative to talcum powder is cornstarch. Widely available in grocery stores, drugstores and online, cornstarch can provide many of the same benefits as talcum powder without the risk of cancer.
Other alternatives to talcum powder include baking soda, tapioca starch, rice starch and oat flour.
- How does asbestos get into talcum powder?
Talc and asbestos are minerals that naturally form close to one another. Some talc deposits are contaminated with asbestos, and they are difficult to separate, which is how asbestos ends up in the final product.
- How does talcum powder cause cancer?
Asbestos in contaminated talcum powder can be inhaled while applying the product. If used on the genitals, asbestos can travel inside the body. Once inside the body, asbestos fibers migrate to sensitive tissues in the pelvis, chest and abdomen, slowly causing diseases such as mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.
- Can you get compensation for talc-related mesothelioma?
Asbestos contamination causes talc-related mesothelioma, and affected patients have the right to file an asbestos claim. A mesothelioma lawyer helps patients claim compensation for medical costs and related expenses.