Since the 1970s, government agencies have known that talc can sometimes be contaminated by asbestos. This is because the two minerals are similar and are often mined in the same location. That leads to the possibility that any product containing talc could potentially be tainted with asbestos.
Exposure to asbestos causes several deadly cancers, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Asbestos is made up of tiny fibers that can be inhaled and lodge themselves in the lungs or the lining of the lungs. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
Yet when companies that sell talc products are asked what they’re doing to reduce the possibility of asbestos contamination in their products, they typically respond that they test their products for asbestos and those tests come back negative.
So, who’s right? Does talc – which is common in consumer products like baby powder and makeup – sometimes contain asbestos?
Industry tests don’t always detect the asbestos that the FDA finds
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently asked an interagency working group to find out if the tests the product manufacturers are using are good enough. That working group just published its findings and it determined that a common testing method used widely in industry sometimes fails to detect asbestos.
That method, X-ray diffraction followed by polarized light microscopy, has been in use since 1976. The working group’s white paper suggests that it’s more accurate to add a round of transmission electron microscopy. The FDA added transmission electron microscopy to its asbestos testing protocol several years ago.
In other words, cosmetics manufacturers have been using an older, less sensitive version of the test, and that older version isn’t always accurate. To find all of the asbestos that may be present in a cosmetic product, the companies should add transmission electron microscopy to their testing protocols, as well.
Does this mean talc-based cosmetics often contain asbestos?
That is not yet clear. This working group’s paper is not official guidance, and it’s unclear whether the FDA will issue guidance recommending that cosmetic companies add transmission electron microscopy to their testing protocols.
Meanwhile, the FDA is slowly testing cosmetics to look for asbestos contamination in talc — using the newer testing method to do so.
In 2019, the FDA found nine cosmetics that contained asbestos-tainted talc. In 2021, it tested 50 cosmetics for asbestos and found none that contained any. It plans to test another 50 cosmetics this year and will presumably warn consumers if it discovers asbestos in any of them.
In the meantime, consumers should be aware that some talc products could be tainted by asbestos.