For nearly a century, millions of people have sprinkled talcum powder on their babies and themselves to absorb moisture, prevent chafing and smell clean. But the bath time staple isn’t as harmless as many believe.
Baby powder can pose a serious risk to infants and toddlers who accidently inhale or swallow the powder. And a growing body of scientific research has linked talc to two types of cancer.
What Is Talc?
Talc is a natural mineral that contains magnesium and a small amount of water combined with silica and oxygen. After talc is mined from the earth, it’s crushed and refined into a fine powder.
Because it’s soft and smooth and retains fragrance, talc is a useful ingredient in baby powder and many types of cosmetics. It’s the primary ingredient in Johnson’s Baby Powder.
Unfortunately, because talc deposits are often located alongside asbestos in the earth, talc is sometimes contaminated with the cancer-causing agent. Cosmetic-grade talc, the most refined form of the mineral, is supposed to be free of asbestos. But over the years, some tests have turned up trace amounts of asbestos in baby powder and other personal care products that contain talc.
What Products Contain Talc?
While baby powder is probably the best known talc product, talc is also a common ingredient in many cosmetics, including eye shadow, blush, foundation and face powders.
Talc is added to makeup to absorb moisture and provide a soft, silky texture so it spreads on more easily. It also prevents caking and gives makeup its opaque finish. Talc is also a common ingredient in deodorants, dry shampoos and other personal care products.
Talc is also used in pharmaceuticals and an array of food products, including chewing gum, candy and rice. The mineral is believed to be safe when it’s ingested in food because it passes unchanged through a person’s digestive tract.
Talc has many industrial uses as well and is found in everything from asphalt shingles to caulks, sealants, paint and more.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t perform safety testing on talc or talc-containing products before they hit store shelves, and it hasn’t set limits on asbestos in cosmetic talc.
Manufacturers of baby powder and other cosmetic talc products instead rely on the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel, an industry-led group, for safety assessments and guidance. In effect, the cosmetic manufacturers police themselves.
That said, the FDA does monitor potential safety problems with cosmetics, including talc products and will intervene if it sees a need. Between 2009 and 2010, for instance, the watchdog agency conducted an examination of cosmetic talc from a handful of suppliers to address safety questions raised about potential asbestos contamination.
The FDA also examined cosmetic products that contain the mineral purchased in retail stores. While no asbestos was found during the review, the agency noted its review was limited in scope and didn’t prove that most or all talc products sold in the United States are free of asbestos.
Is Talcum Powder Safe for Babies?
Despite its name, baby powder can be hazardous to infants and children. Dusting an infant or child with talc can create large clouds of powder that can pose a danger. Infants can accidently inhale talc dust and end up with severe breathing difficulties and other serious problems.
To avoid these risks, most pediatricians recommend not using baby powder on your children.
Common respiratory symptoms of talcum powder poisoning include chest pain, coughing, trouble breathing, wheezing, and rapid or shallow breathing.
Other symptoms of talc poisoning, according to the National Institutes of Health, can include:
- Decreased urine output
- Eye and throat irritation
- Low blood pressure or cardiovascular collapse
- Twitching of the arms, legs or face
- Bluish skin, lips and fingernails
- Diarrhea and vomiting
Although rare, a child can die from talc inhalation. If your child shows any of the signs or symptoms of talc poisoning, move them to fresh air and seek emergency medical attention. You can reach the national Poison Help hotline at 1-800-222-1222.
How to Protect Your Baby
- Use a cornstarch-based powder instead of talcum powder.
- Always keep baby powder out of reach of children.
- Keep powder away from your child’s face to avoid inhalation.
- When using powder, place it on your hands first away from your child and then apply to your baby’s skin.
- Use powder sparingly.
- Do not use talcum powder on broken skin.
- Never use any type of powder around infants who are premature or have lung problems.
- Use over-the-counter creams and ointments instead of powder to treat diaper rash.
Cancer and Other Health Concerns
Talcum powder has also been linked to lung problems in adults and at least two types of cancer.
A number of studies, for instance, have shown that women who use talcum powder in their genital areas for feminine hygiene purposes have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
While the links between talc and ovarian cancer are a subject of intense debate, thousands of women with ovarian cancer have filed lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson and other companies. Some talcum powder lawsuits have resulted in record verdicts.
Other studies have linked the long-term use of talcum powder by both men and women to a rare and fatal cancer called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma affects the linings of the lungs, abdomen and other organs. Some people with mesothelioma who’ve sued talcum powder manufacturers have also won large awards and others have received settlements.
Talcosis Risk from Breathing in Talcum Powder
Another health risk related to talc inhalation is a severe inflammation of the lungs known as pulmonary talcosis.
The disease was first recognized decades ago among workers in the talc mining industry, who were exposed to large amounts of the mineral for extended periods of time. But case reports in the medical literature reveal that chronic inhalation of cosmetic talc, such as baby powder, can also cause talcosis.
A 2018 case report in the Journal of the Belgian Society of Radiology, for instance, describes a 31-year-old woman who developed talcosis after using an abundant amount of cosmetic talc on a daily basis for several years. The woman’s primary symptoms were shortness of breath and joint pain. A CT scan showed multiple abnormal growths and evidence of inflammatory changes in her lungs.
Symptoms of talcosis may vary widely. While some people have no symptoms at all, others end up in respiratory failure. Common symptoms may include dyspnea, which is a shortness of breath that worsens over time. Some people develop a dry cough.
Unfortunately, diagnosis isn’t always immediate. Full-blown talcosis sometimes takes years to develop, according to medical reports. It can even occur many years after an individual stops using talcum powder.
A 2011 case report in The BMJ describes a woman who developed talcosis 10 years after she had ended a four-month ritual of inhaling cosmetic talcum powder. The potential lag time between the exposure and diagnosis causes many cases of talcosis to be misdiagnosed, according to the authors of the report.
Should I Avoid Using Baby Powder?
While the U.S. National Toxicology Program has not completed its review of cosmetic talc as a possible carcinogen, other countries are considering stricter regulations of the mineral.
The Canadian government is considering adding the mineral to a list of toxic substances and is considering restricting talc in products that can be inhaled or used near the female genitals. The draft regulations warn that using talc products in the genital region may cause ovarian cancer.
To minimize your exposure to talc, the Canadian government advises consumers to:
- Avoid inhaling talcum powder.
- Avoid using talcum powder around the female genitals.
- Choose a talc-free alternative instead.
The American Cancer Society also recommends people who are concerned about using talcum powder avoid or limit their use of talc products until more information is available.
Commercial cornstarch-based powders have a similar consistency to talc, are just as absorbent and still have a delightful baby powder scent. Other alternative powders include a blend of ingredients such as kaolin, baking soda, arrowroot powder, rice powder and other natural ingredients.
Some name brand talcum powder substitutes include:
- Burt’s Bees Baby Dusting Powder
- Era Organic’s Talc Free Baby Dusting Powder
- California Baby Calming Organic Powder
- Johnson’s Cornstarch Baby Powder with Aloe & Vitamin E
You can even make your own baby powder substitute by following any number of recipes on the web. Whatever alternative you choose, you should still be careful to avoid using any powder around your baby’s face.
More and more makeup manufacturers are also offering talc-free cosmetics. Omiana cosmetics, for instance, only sells talc-free makeup. Cover FX’s line of products are free from five controversial ingredients: talc, parabens, mineral oil, fragrance and gluten.
When you’re selecting any product, be sure to read the ingredient label. If you’re not familiar with a product or its ingredients, you can look it up on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics database. The database includes more than 70,000 products and highlights any ingredients of concern.
18 Cited Research Articles
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