Within the clean beauty movement, several cosmetic ingredients have been deemed controversial, but none has garnered headlines recently quite like talc. The mineral-based powder, which has been used in beauty product formulas for a very long time, has been deemed problematic for several years now. And, finally, a growing number of major beauty brands are moving to remove it from their formulations.
According to a report by Reuters, Chanel, Revlon, and L’Oréal are three of the most recent big cosmetics brands that are moving away from using talc, an absorbent, skin-smoothing powder, in many of their products. It was just last month that Johnson & Johnson, a brand known for its talc-based powders (including those that are meant for babies), announced a ban of the ingredient from its formulations. This came after years of lawsuits filed against the company for these powders testing positive for asbestos and being linked to both ovarian cancer and mesothelioma (links that the Food and Drug Administration is still investigating).
Although no study has proved a direct connection between using talc powder and certain types of cancer or mesothelioma, it’s the asbestos contamination that is problematic. “Consumers face the risk of carcinogenic exposure when using talc contaminated with asbestos,” says Carla Burns, research and data analyst at Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (EWG). This contamination occurs, explains Burns, because talc is a mineral, and asbestos oftentimes forms alongside it in its parent rock. “Asbestos generally forms in valleys or sheet rock, and talc can form around that, so when it’s being mined, they can come from the same parent rock. This makes it difficult to tell the difference between the two, so they’re often mixed together and contaminated,” she says.
Since talc is so prone to asbestos contamination, why has it remained in cosmetics formulations for so long? “Talc is used in cosmetic products because of its absorbent tendencies which can help improve the texture and prevent caking in powders,” says Burns, who notes that it’s often found in eyeshadow, blush, face and body powders, but can also be found in liquid products. Board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, adds that talc is particularly a risk when in powder form. “Powders disperse into the air, where particles can be inhaled, which is more of a concern if asbestos is present,” she says.
Plenty of talc alternatives exist, Burns notes, such as plant-based starches, like corn and tapioca. “A lot of these alternatives have a larger particle size, so there’s less of a concern about inhalation getting into the deep lungs,” she says. “They’re also not mineral-based, so there’s less of a concern about contaminants.”
Despite clear alternatives, Burns notes that more than 2,000 beauty products in the EWG Cosmetics Database list talc in their formulas. Thankfully, as more big brands announce that they’re moving away from the ingredient, there are plenty of cosmetics on the shelves that proudly announce being talc-free (which you can spot right on their packaging). With that knowledge, you can choose what you decide to put on your skin.
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