Cancer-causing asbestos might be present in talc-based cosmetics, even in kids’ makeup kit, say researchers

Test results highlight that the lack of adequate screening of talc poses a significant risk of exposure to a carcinogen and demonstrate that cosmetics reform is urgently needed


                            Cancer-causing asbestos might be present in talc-based cosmetics, even in kids’ makeup kit, say researchers
(Getty Images)

Exposure to asbestos causes certain types of cancer, and its use is regulated in the US. Despite this, researchers have found the presence of this deadly human carcinogen (a substance capable of causing cancer) in talc-based cosmetics products used in the US. Laboratory tests of talc-based cosmetics, commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), found asbestos in almost 15% of samples.

The products were purchased in retail stores in San Francisco, California, and Washington DC, and from an online retailer. Asbestos was detected in three out of 21 products tested — two eye shadow palettes, and one toy make-up kit. The make-up kit was intended for use by children as young as 5 years old, according to Dr Tasha Stoiber, co-author of the paper and a senior scientist at EWG.

“Asbestos is a known human carcinogen. There is no safe level of exposure. The goal was to bring awareness to the prevalence of asbestos contamination in talc-based products and the lack of regulations in the US to require adequate screening of talc. In this small study, 1 in 7 products were found to be contaminated with asbestos. The prevalence of asbestos found in cosmetics from this study is troubling given that most people don’t expect asbestos to be in their makeup, especially not in children’s toy makeup,” Dr Stoiber told MEAWW.

The tests were conducted by the Scientific Analytical Institute at Greensboro, North Carolina. Samples were analyzed using electron microscopy, following test procedures described by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It included samples of cosmetics in powder form, including eye shadow, foundation, blush, face, and body powders. The findings have been published in Environmental Health Insights. 

According to the National Cancer Institute, exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma (a cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen), as well as cancers of the lung, larynx, and ovary. Mesothelioma is the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure, but the disease is relatively rare. The EWG stresses that despite the declining use of asbestos in the US, mesothelioma deaths remain substantial, especially among younger people. From an analysis of federal mortality data, EWG Action Fund estimated that up to 15,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-triggered diseases. Studies have also found more than 60% of mesothelioma cases in women are likely attributable to non-occupational exposure to asbestos.

“Inhaling even the tiniest amount of asbestos in talc can cause mesothelioma and other deadly diseases, many years after exposure. How much talc is inhaled, and how much is contaminated with asbestos, is hard to know, but it only takes one asbestos fiber, lodged in the lungs, to cause mesothelioma decades later,” emphasizes Dr Stoiber.

Experts call for stricter regulations

According to scientists, geologically, talc and asbestos can be formed from the same parent rock, which is mined for both cosmetics use and industrial use. Talc is often used to improve the texture and feel of cosmetics, to absorb moisture or as an inexpensive filler. 

Exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen, as well as cancers of the lung, larynx, and ovary (Getty Images)

Stating that the methods used by the cosmetics industry to screen talc supplies are inadequate, the investigators call attention to the outdated methods used for screening this potential hazard in talc-based cosmetics.

“Many well-known brands use talc in body and facial powders that can be inhaled. In our Skin Deep online database, we have identified more than 2,000 personal care products that contain talc, including over 1,000 loose or pressed powders that could pose an inhalation risk. It’s troubling to think how many Americans have been using talc-based cosmetics products potentially contaminated with asbestos,” notes Nneka Leiba, EWG vice president for Healthy Living Science.

In 1976, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA) developed specifications for “cosmetic talc” purity, including non-detection of asbestos, to differentiate from industrial uses. However, experts say that talc mined for both cosmetic use or industrial use comes from the same sources and carries the same risk of potential contamination. They argue that the FDA does not require mandatory testing of talc supplies, and the voluntary testing method developed by industry is not sensitive enough to screen for asbestos when compared to electron microscopy.

The report also highlights that in an FDA investigation in 2019, nine talc-containing products, out of 52 tested, were found to be contaminated with asbestos. While the FDA issued three warnings in 2019 to consumers regarding the positive products, it says that the agency does not have the authority to issue mandatory product recalls and instead worked with the companies to voluntarily remove products from the market. This does little to address the numerous other products that continue to pose a significant risk, warns the team.

“Our results highlight that the lack of adequate screening of talc poses a significant risk of exposure to a carcinogen and further demonstrate that cosmetics reform is urgently needed. There is currently no regulation requiring the screening of talc for asbestos; the testing that is conducted is voluntary. Further, the FDA does not have the authority to issue mandatory recalls when products are found to be contaminated,” says Dr Stoiber. She adds, “The standard method used by the industry to screen for asbestos contamination — if they choose to do so — does not have the sensitivity to reliably detect the contamination. Given the carcinogenic potential of this mineral, a more sensitive and reliable method needs to be adopted as the standard.”

According to Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, while consumers should be alarmed and outraged, it is “hardly a surprise, considering the federal law regulating the cosmetics industry has not been updated since 1938.” “It’s long past time for Congress to pass legislation mandating that all talc-based personal care products be rigorously tested and the cosmetics industry be required to put the public’s safety first. The current system, which has allowed the cosmetics industry to operate beyond the reach of FDA’s authority, must end,” emphasizes Faber.

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