Stories from Clean Beauty

Johnson & Johnson discontinues talc-based baby powders in the U.S. and Canada

Kara Jillian Brown

Kara Jillian BrownMay 20, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Johnson & Johnson talc-based baby powder has come under fire in recent years due to inconclusive claims linking it to cancer diagnoses, despite recent studies finding no meaningful association between the use of talc-based powders and ovarian cancer. Nonetheless, a long-term decrease in sales, in combination with shifting consumer needs during the pandemic, prompted the brand to announce Tuesday that it’s permanently discontinuing roughly 100 products, including talc-based baby powders, in the U.S. and Canada.

“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 brand says in a statement. “The Company will wind down the commercialization of talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in the U.S. and Canada in the coming months.”

Johnson & Johnson will continue to sell its existing inventory of the product in stores in the U.S. and Canada until it runs out. Cornstarch-based baby powders will still be available, and both types will continue to be sold in other countries.

Carrie Kovarik, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, says that talc is often found underground in close proximity to the carcinogen asbestos

“Talc is a mineral in clay which is mined underground. Asbestos is also mined underground, and they can be found in the same locations with a risk of cross-contamination,” says Dr. Kovarik. “Most talc-based baby powder contains some mineral-based talc. Talc was originally investigated as a carcinogen based on its possible association with asbestos (which is a known carcinogen). US-based manufacturers have banned asbestos for decades; however, the FDA continues to test talc-based products for asbestos and reports any positive findings to the public.”

In 2018, 22 women and their families who say asbestos found in Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder contributed to their ovarian cancer were awarded nearly $4.7 billion in damages. In 2019, the company was ordered to pay $29 million to a woman in California who says the powder caused her to develop mesothelioma, a type of cancer linked to asbestos exposure. According to the FDA, Johnson & Johnson voluntarily recalled several powders after they tested positive for asbestos. The brand maintains that its talcum powder is safe.

“Johnson & Johnson remains steadfastly confident in the safety of talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder,” reads a statement. “Decades of scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of our product. We will continue to vigorously defend the product, its safety, and the unfounded allegations against it and the Company in the courtroom.”

The American Cancer Society says that there isn’t enough conclusive research to link talcum powder exposure to and cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that there was a “modest, but unusually consistent” increased chance of developing ovarian cancer among women who reported using talcum powder in the genital area. A 2020 study in JAMA found that “there was not a statistically significant association between genital powder use and incident ovarian cancer. However, the study may have been underpowered to identify a small increase in risk.”

Many consumers shy away from talcum powder, and brands took notice with plenty of powder-based clean beauty products, like dry shampoo and deodorant, advertising as “talc-free.” The National Women’s Health Network said in a statement on Wednesday that the organization is pleased with the discontinuation of this product.

“This week’s announcement represents a major victory for the NWHN and our allies who raised concerns about J&J’s talc-based baby powder,” reads the statement. “While the company continues to defend talc-based baby powder, this week’s statement acknowledges that advocacy campaigns like ours to warn women about talc’s dangers played a role in [the brand’s decision].”

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