There’s a common misconception in clean beauty that natural ingredients are healthier ingredients. But while that’s sometimes the case, it’s not always true. Just look at talc, which is used in beauty products from foundation to dry shampoo. It’s a naturally occurring clay mineral found around the world—and it could be dangerous to the point of carcinogenic.
It’s an issue that’s gone back decades, but is currently garnering attention due to the release of the HBO Max docuseries Not So Pretty, directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, and narrated by Keke Palmer. The four-part series investigates some of the potential dangers of the (largely unregulated) beauty industry. The first episode investigates the prevalence of talc in makeup and body products, despite a connection between the ingredient and cancer-causing asbestos.
Not So Pretty primarily focuses on the link between products containing talc and mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer found in the lungs and abdomen. But that may not be the only risk. “There have been several studies that have shown a possible positive association between talc powder and ovarian cancer,” explains board-certified dermatologist Naana Boakye, who notes that “these studies were small and their statistical significance was weak.”
However, the link notably prompted a $2 billion lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, which was accused of not warning customers of the dangers of asbestos in its talc-based baby powder, a product that is no longer on the market in the United States. In addition, Boakye notes that talc “can also be found in aerosols, which can cause respiratory disease such as fibrosis and possibly malignancy.”
The risk of dangerous side effects may be relatively low, but Boakye says, “I would encourage all individuals to look at their ingredients list and not use products with talc. Again, the studies had small sample sizes, but I would not want to take that risk personally.” Yet many brands continue to use talc in their products, often claiming that it’s batch-tested for asbestos. But according to some experts (and Not So Pretty), where there is talc, there is asbestos. “Even talc that claims to be asbestos free is not safe for use, as testing methods used to detect the absence of asbestos are flawed and inaccurate,” cofounder of Crunchi Cosmetics and board-certified family nurse practitioner Melanie Petschke says. “This explains why studies performed by the National Toxicology Panel have shown evidence that even asbestos-free talc can be carcinogenic.”
Still, there is some dispute about the presence of asbestos in all talc. Clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants Krupa Koestline says that the ingredient can be safe to use, “provided the brand has sourced with that mindset and set checks and balances in the supply chain.” Sephora, which distinguishes “clean” products with its “Clean at Sephora” seal, even allows “restricted use” of talc under its current guidelines, with the caveat that “only talc with no detection of asbestos according to the raw material specification can be used.”
There is also the question of what ingredients to use in lieu of talc, which has a variety of applications across product categories. “It may be used as a bulking agent, to enhance skin feel, help fill in lines, or to alter adhesion or color expression,” says Koestline, who says a few options that are used instead include silica, kaolin, arrowroot, rice powder, and zinc oxide. But they may come with their own issues. “The alternatives are much harder to formulate with, especially if the brand is not ready to compromise on the skin feel,” Koestline says. They also cost more. “Ingredients that have higher safety profiles are more expensive than their conventional alternatives,” Petschke says.
If you’re at all concerned about the effects of talc, the best thing to do is use products that don’t contain the ingredient. Luckily, many brands have made the investment in using alternatives, and their products are not only pleasant to apply, they’re available at every budget.
From Harper’s Bazaar US