Johnson’s Baby Powder “has been a staple of baby care rituals and adult skincare and makeup routines worldwide for over a century,” notes the product’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), on its website. But a recent investigation by Reuters, along with numerous court battles, suggest a darker side to this everyday product.
On December 14, Reuters published a report revealing that Johnson & Johnson had covered up evidence suggesting a presence of asbestos in its products. This caused the company’s shares to plummet by 10 percent on Friday, according to The New York Times.
Reuters examined various documents and memos, as well as deposition and trial testimonies, to conclude that between 1971 and the early 2000s, “the company’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors, and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.”
The report notes various instances where asbestos was found in talc products. For example, three tests conducted between 1972 and 1975 apparently found traces of asbestos in J&J talc, with one sample containing “rather high” levels.
However, while these and a few other samples did test positive for asbestos, Reuters notes that the majority of J&J reports it looked at found no trace of asbestos.
Talcum powder, the key ingredient in Johnson’s Baby Powder, is a powdered form of a mineral known as talc. Talc mainly comprises magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. It absorbs moisture and reduces friction, and is therefore used to keep the skin dry and to prevent rashes and chafing.
Asbestos refers to a group of six naturally occurring minerals, which have a very fibrous structure. Asbestos was once used widely in construction, but asbestos products are now mainly banned due to the risk they pose to people’s health, particularly those that mine it. Long-term exposure to asbestos can lead to lung diseases and certain types of cancer.
Asbestos’ connection to cancer has led to a number of legal battles between Johnson & Johnson and long-term users of its products who say they have suffered cancer as a direct result. In July, the company was ordered to pay $4.7 billion in damages to 22 women who alleged that J&J talc products had caused their ovarian cancer. J&J are currently appealing this decision, citing juror confusion and a reliance on “junk” science among its reasons to fight back.
Damages have also been awarded to plaintiffs in New Jersey and California who alleged their mesothelioma – a type of cancer affecting the linings of the lungs that’s often linked to asbestos exposure – was caused by J&J talc products.
So, should you be worried?
In 2009, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioned tests on 34 talc samples, including J&J Baby Powder, and found no evidence of asbestos whatsoever. What’s more, the American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that while there is “some suggestion of possible increase in ovarian cancer risk… There is very little evidence at this time that any other forms of cancer are linked with consumer use of talcum powder.”
According to the ACS, studies on the link between ovarian cancer and talc have had mixed results. Some have found no connection between the two, while others have found that talcum powder use increases the risk of the disease – but only slightly. The ACS also notes that this only applies if talc is directly applied to the genital area.
Studies linking talcum powder to ovarian cancer are limited because they tend to rely on women self-reporting how much talc they used decades ago, which may not be accurate, notes Cancer Research UK. They add that more research is needed, but even if talc does increase cancer risk, this increase will only be small, and ovarian cancer is a rare disease anyway.
If you’re particularly worried, perhaps avoid regularly applying talc to your genitals. Medical experts recommend that women only use plain, unscented soaps on this sensitive area anyway.
Some studies have linked talc to lung cancer in those that mine it, but at the same time, other research has found no such connection. What’s more, talc in its natural form can contain other minerals like asbestos that harm the lungs, but it is purified before being added to cosmetic products.
Johnson & Johnson are adamant that their products are completely safe, describing the Reuters article as “one-sided, false, and inflammatory” in a statement on their website, and dismissing the findings as an "absurd conspiracy theory".