Talc is a common, naturally occurring clay mineral found in large deposits around the world. Used as a cosmetic, talc is best known in its pulverized form as talcum powder or baby powder.
As a silicate mineral, talc is often found near and among deposits of asbestos. Because of this, some people believe that medical problems related to talc, such as lung problems and ovarian cancer, are due to the presence of asbestos or other impurities in the talc.
Common Uses of Talc
The most common uses of talc are cosmetic, such as in baby powder or as an ingredient in color cosmetics. It is also used in various toiletries – especially soap, antiperspirant, toothpaste, and even some commercial bath bombs. Talc is also used as a food and drug additive.
Given the wide-ranging uses of talc for different applications, several standards have been developed for the purity of the talc used in different ways.
Most Common Talc Uses
|The most common use is as a cosmetic, usually in powdered form such as in baby powder. As a cosmetic, the FDA does not have regulatory oversight of talc, unless it is shown to cause significant problems.||Although not its primary use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has developed safety guidelines for the use of talc in food. For example, the FDA generally considers the mineral to be safe as an “anticaking agent” in table salt.||In industrial settings, talc is sometimes used as a machine lubricant. Together, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety have developed limits for inhalation during an 8-hour workday.|
Food- and cosmetic-grade talc undergoes strict quality control procedures to ensure that no asbestos or other impurities are present. In 2010, the FDA conducted a study in which it found no asbestos in any of a variety of talc-containing products.
Talc Safety Concerns
Although it is generally regarded as a safe substance, over the years there has been some indications that talc can cause medical issues.
One of the biggest concerns is related to the potential link between talcum powder and cancer, including both lung cancer and ovarian cancer. Since the 1960s, doctors and researchers have noticed this link, but to date there is no scientific consensus as to the mineral’s specific role in cancer development, with various studies arriving at different conclusions. While some researchers believe that impurities, such as asbestos, are the causes of cancer and other health problems, others believe the talc itself is at fault.
Lung Cancer and Pulmonary Problems
Talc has also been implicated in a number of lung-related diseases and conditions. In addition to lung cancer, the mineral is often associated with other pulmonary conditions, such as pulmonary talcosis, fibrosis, and granulomatosis.
Because of these problems, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that parents not use baby powder with infants. Since talcum powder is so fine, it can be easily breathed in by babies, which can lead to respiratory problems like those mentioned above.
Another way that talc can affect the lungs is through improper drug use, such as by crushing drug tablets to be injected intravenously. A number of commercial medications use talc as an inert ingredient: When injected into the bloodstream, the talc can get caught in the blood vessels of the lungs, where it can build up and cause problems.
Talc and Asbestos
Both talc and asbestos are naturally occurring silicate minerals that are frequently found in deposits near each other. As a result, it is very easy to for asbestos to get mixed in with talc products, including talcum powder. Historically, some such products have contained traces of asbestos, and some researchers believe that contamination may be the source of cancer and other problems.
In 1976, strict quality control measures were put in place to help keep asbestos out of food- and cosmetic-grade talc products. A 2010 study by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration found no asbestos in a variety of products that contained talc. However, it is possible that asbestos could still be found in industrial-grade talc and naturally occurring talc deposits and mines.
Because it is generally considered a relatively harmless substance, talc is not heavily regulated in the United States. However, several agencies do oversee safety in at least some capacity.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
The FDA has some authority to regulate talc through the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), when it is used in foods – for example, as a color additive. Talc-based cosmetics, however, are not required to undergo any sort of review by the FDA. Companies are still responsible for making sure that the cosmetic products they put on the market are safe for consumer use, whether or not the FDA inspects those products.
Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA)
Given the danger that talc poses to industrial workers, OSHA has authority to set safe levels of exposure limits in factories, distribution centers, and other places where high levels of the substance may be used. The first OSHA regulations only covered talc containing asbestos, but today it sets standards for all forms of the mineral.
Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)
In its natural form, talc is often mixed in with other minerals. Especially dangerous is talc mixed with asbestos, another silicate mineral that has been proven to cause a number of lung-related diseases. As a result, most MSHA regulations relating to mines and miners are around these impurities, rather than talc exposure itself.
The medical problems caused by talc-based products have led to a number of lawsuits over the years. Since early 2016, juries came back with four large verdicts against Johnson & Johnson costing the company a total of $307.6 million. According to at least one news report, there are more than 2,400 lawsuits against the company currently working their way through state and federal courts.
Colgate-Palmolive Co. is another company that has faced lawsuits over its talcum powder products. Cashmere Bouquet, which the company sold in 1995, was shown to contain traces of asbestos, which can lead to medical problems. The company has paid out at least one verdict worth $12.4 million, and there are dozens of other ongoing cases. Visit our legal rights page to learn how consumers are protected by the law.