Talc, also known as talcum powder, is commonly found in American homes. Most people don’t think much about it, especially if they use it every day.
It’s a mineral that’s been used for over 100 years in baby and body powder as well as other uses. Talc’s unique properties make it ideal for a wide range of applications, from health and beauty items to building materials.
Talc isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own. But talc deposits are frequently found together with asbestos in the earth. It’s also mined in the same areas as asbestos, leading to potential cross-contamination during mining and processing. This means that asbestos could make its way into your baby and body powder, cosmetics, and other frequently used products.
What Is Talc?
It’s a substance that is mined worldwide for its ability to absorb moisture as a powder. Used in a wide range of products, talc is in a wide range of products that you might not realize you have around your home. The FDA considers talc as “generally recognized as safe.”
Chemically, talc is known as Hydrous Magnesium Silicate [Mg3Si4O10(OH)2]. Talc is the softest mineral known to science, with a hardness of just 1 on the Mohs scale. Once it’s processed and ground, it’s a very soft powder that’s useful in a number of applications.
Because of its unique qualities, talc has found its way into multiple everyday household products.
Baby Powder/Body Powder
The most widely recognized uses are the ubiquitous “baby powder” or “body powder.” Used after a bath or shower, it absorbs dampness on the skin and keeps you dry. It’s also ideal for absorbing sweat, particularly in the hotter months of the year.
Deodorants also use talc in their formulation to add additional dryness to the product.
Manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson have marketed talcum powders for personal use, particularly to women. Talc’s moisture absorbency and other qualities make it ideal for staying dry and preventing chafing.
Talcum powder has been used on babies and children since Johnson & Johnson began marketing it.
But current guidance suggests keeping talcum powder away from babies due to the possibility of inhalation. In fact, as far back as 1969, the American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending keeping “baby powder” away from babies and small children. Their guidance was reiterated in 1981. There is no medicinal value to its use, and the dangers of inhalation were also underrated.
Babies who breathe any amount of baby powder--regardless of its base ingredient--are at risk for choking and coughing. Continued inhalation can lead to respiratory illness, lung damage, and other chronic diseases.
Adult use of talcum powder is the subject of much debate, particularly among women, who used it freely, including in the peritoneal area. Johnson & Johnson has always maintained that their products are safe to use. But women who developed peritoneal mesothelioma and ovarian cancers have long believed that the powder was the cause of their cancers. Many have filed suit against the company as a result.
Makeup/Cosmetic Use Of Talc
Beauty products from a range of companies are known to use talc as an ingredient because of its soft nature and anti-caking capability.
- Face powder
Talc can also cause skin irritations in some users, so there is increasing demand for products without it. Recognizing that customers may want alternatives, these companies sell talc-free cosmetic products:
- Bare Minerals
- Pur Cosmetics
- Cover FX
- It Cosmetics
- Burt’s Bees
- Physician’s Formula
- Jane Iredale
If you prefer to avoid talc in cosmetic products, it’s worth it to ask around and seek out products that don’t contain any.
The Think Dirty app for both iOS and Android can help you identify individual ingredients in cosmetics and other personal care products for their toxicity, including talc.
Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website allows you to look up each individual ingredient in a product to determine its safety.
Feminine Hygiene Products
Women use an array of hygiene products during their lifetime for cleanliness, believing that they are safe to use. American women spend an estimated $2 billion on feminine hygiene products every year.
Unfortunately, many of these products have been found to contain numerous chemicals that could be harmful, including talc. The FDA considers pads and tampons to be “medical devices,” and are regulated differently than other products.
Why talc? Like makeup products, talc keeps these products dry longer before use. Talc is also used in female hygiene products as a deodorizing agent, and can sometimes contain fragrances.
Other feminine hygiene products that could contain talc include:
- Douche products
- Vaginal deodorants
- Feminine wipes
- Deodorant powders
Even if the talc is free of asbestos, the risks are high for having talc particles absorbed into the reproductive system. Particles of talc have been shown to travel upwards into the uterus and ovaries over time. This raises the risks of ovarian and other cancers in women.
Talc In Food Products
If you are on the lookout for gluten in the foods you buy, you know to look at labeling to see if “wheat” or other allergens are listed on the label. But you probably haven’t thought about talc in your food. Chances are, it isn’t listed, either.
Amazingly, there is such a thing as food-grade talc, and there currently are no regulations prohibiting its addition, and it is perfectly legal to add it. Talc had been added to white rice for decades, particularly in Japan, to enhance its appearance and make it whiter. But since talc has been shown to contribute to stomach cancer, it’s no longer added to rice.
Food-grade talc can also:
- Brighten the appearance of other food dyes
- Prevent stickiness with foods like certain types of candies as well as beans
- Prevent caking in powdered and processed dried foods
- Prevent the formation of lumps by making items water-resistant. It’s used in things like:
- Dried Fruits
- Salt and other seasonings
- Chewing gum
- Baked goods
- Other starches
- Add texture and bulk to chewing gum bases
Because food-grade talc does not react with anything that’s acidic, it also does not release carbon dioxide.
Do you take vitamins and other supplements? You probably don’t know that talc is also used in many brands of supplements like Centrum Silver.
Listed on the label as “magnesium silicate,” talc is used primarily as a cheap filler, as a coating for tablets. Talc is also used on the “gummy” type of vitamins to prevent them from sticking together. Otherwise, they would become one large mass inside the bottle during shipment.
Magnesium stearate is another additive used in vitamins and supplements for the same purpose but is a completely different substance.
Other Products That Utilize Talc
Talc can also be found in non-personal products as well, including:
- Roofing materials
- Joint compounds
Talc improves the weather resistance of roofing materials. It’s dusted onto the surfaces of shingles and roll-out roofing to prevent sticking as it’s installed. As of 2011, 6% of the talc consumed in the US was used for roofing.
Soapstone is another form of talc, and is used in projects where easy carving is needed, including:
- Ornamental sculpture
Talc is also used as a lubricant where high temperatures would degrade typical oil-based products.
Insecticides and fungicides also involve talc. The product is blown in using a nozzle, easily sticks to surfaces of plants.
The Contrarian Opinion
Johnson & Johnson is the leading producer of talcum-based products and has sparked thousands of talcum powder asbestos lawsuits as a cause of cancer.
The bombshell Reuters’ report that connected the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer with or without asbestos caused the company to stop selling any talc-based products in early 2020 in the US.
In 2019, the FDA issued a warning of some of Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder. After testing, it was found to contain a form of asbestos called chrysotile fibers. The company issued a voluntary recall and asked consumers who had bought some to cease using it.
In response to these stories as well as multiple lawsuits and related information, the company launched its own website, FactsAboutTalc. In it, the company offers studies that claim there is no link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder use.