Nearly 15% of talc-based cosmetic products analyzed in a recent study contained asbestos.
Environmental Working Group (EWG) — an American advocacy nonprofit that commissioned the tests and did the analysis — said methods used by the cosmetics industry to screen talc supplies are inadequate. The voluntary testing method developed by industry is not sensitive enough to screen for asbestos when compared to electron microscopy, the group said.
"Many well-known brands use talc in body and facial powders that can be inhaled," said Nneka Leiba, an EWG vice president.
She noted that EWG's online database has identified more than 2,000 personal care products that contain talc, including more than 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," Leiba said in an EWG news release.
The analysis was published Nov. 25 in the journal Environmental Health Insights.
The Scientific Analytical Institute conducted the tests, using electron microscopy to analyze samples. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require testing talc supplies.
"It is critical that the FDA develop a rigorous screening method for talc used in personal care products," said Sean Fitzgerald, head of the Greensboro, North Carolina, -based institute. "The lab repeatedly finds asbestos in products made with talc, including cosmetics marketed to children. It's outrageous that a precise method for testing personal care products for the presence of asbestos exists, but the cosmetics industry isn't required to use it."
Fitzgerald's lab tested 21 samples of powder cosmetics, including eye shadow, foundation, blush, face, and body powders.
Talc is often used in cosmetics as a filler or to improve texture or absorb moisture. Talc and asbestos can be formed in the same rocks that are mined for both cosmetics use and industrial use. The federal government does not require that cosmetics be tested for asbestos, instead encouraging companies to select talc mines carefully to avoid asbestos contamination, according to the study.
In May, Johnson & Johnson announced it would end the sale of its talc-based baby powder in the United States and Canada. Thousands of people have filed lawsuits against the company, claiming the product caused cancer, the study said.
"Inhaling even the tiniest amount of asbestos in talc can cause mesothelioma and other deadly diseases, many years after exposure," Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at EWG, said in the release. "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."
EWG reports that exposure to asbestos is linked to asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung and ovarian cancer.
Based on federal data, the EWG Action Fund estimates that up to 15,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-triggered disease.
In March 2019, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., introduced legislation that would require warning labels on cosmetics that could contain asbestos and are marketed to children.
EWG called for Congress to pass legislation mandating rigorous testing of talc-based personal care products.