As innocuous as it may seem, talc often triggers controversies within the cosmetics industry, a sector used to polemical issues. And the fact that it has been used for thousands of years will not calm down the debate, as it is now regularly suspected of having carcinogenic effects. Still, should this white powder be added to the red list of ingredients to be avoided?
In its natural state, talc is a magnesium silicate that belongs to the same family as clay and mica, a mineral harvested in quarries like the largest one in the world, located in Trimouns, in the south of France. This soft and sectile, translucent to opaque rock known since the Ancient times has an oily skin feel, but it is also gentle and powdered.
It became widely used in many sectors over time. Ceramic, paper, paint, roofing, plastics, rubber… talc can be integrated to all these materials’ manufacturing processes. The food industry has also made it an anti-agglomerating additive (E553b), while pharmaceutics is keen on its lubricating properties…
Talc in cosmetics
Talc can be used for various cosmetics applications:
• As an anti-agglomerating agent, it is a good base for makeup powders, and it also contributes to the dispersion of colouring pigments and to a better adherence to the skin
• As an absorbent, it acts as a matting agent in facial care products and is widely used to limit perspiration (powders for the feet or deodorants) and the excess of sebum (dry shampoos), or, due to its hydrophobic properties (against water), it can keep certain body parts dry, like babies’ bottoms or women’s intimate parts
In addition, it is considered as a ‘skin-protecting agent’ in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. Its soft, smooth skin feel, its odourless, inert nature, which does not interfere with the other ingredients in the formula, its long shelf-life, and its affordable cost make it a choice raw material.
It can be used as such, but it is also often coated (mixed with oil or butter) to enhance its quality in cosmetics.
A few precautions for babies
It does have a few contraindications though.
Since it was proven toxic by inhalation and irritant for airways, a warning must be affixed on its packaging when it is presented as a pulverulent product (in the form of powder) for children under three, and worded as follows: ‘Keep powder away from children’s nose and mouth’.
Many dermatologists also warn against talc, even if it is often considered an essential for babies’ seats. Indeed, once the diaper closed, it tends to stick in the folds and form small balls likely to irritate the skin, thus increasing the risks of infection in the long run.
There is nothing absolutely unacceptable here, nor anything to ask for a total ban, since these contraindications do not apply to talc incorporated to compact or emulsified formulas.
Talc, a carcinogenic agent
Talc first hit the headlines in 1972, when 36 young children died and 168 others were poisoned (coma or neurological after-effects) after their mothers used Morhange talc. However, it was due to a handling mistake during manufacturing (a high quantity of hexachlorophene, a strong bactericide, was introduced in the product by mistake), not to talc itself.
Talc is a natural mineral, but it can also contain traces of heavy metals like nickel, aluminium, or other asbestiform magnesium silicates like asbestos. And even if we also produce synthetic talc (devoid of any impurities) or natural talc certified free from asbestos, that is actually what raises an issue.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies non-asbestiform talc in the group of 3 unclassifiable substances as regards their carcinogenicity for humans, but asbestiform talc (often used in body care products, in particular those for women’s intimate parts) is classified 2B: potentially carcinogenic.
An ovarian cancer factor
Health authorities in various countries are divided as regards this issue. For example in France, ANSES (French Agency for Food, Environmental, and Occupational Health & Safety) published a report in 2012, in which it indicated that ‘depending on the different producing deposits from which it is derived (… talc) can contain mineral fibres with similar chemical structures to that of the six mineral fibres classified as asbestos fibres in the regulatory meaning of the term’, although it was added that ‘as for talc’s potential carcinogenic effects, (…) the epidemiological and toxicological data available today do not make it possible to give an opinion on its risk.’
The most detailed warning came from the USA. On the other side of the Atlantic, talcum powder is widely used for feminine hygiene. And the American Cancer Society published several studies that tend to show that talcum powder used in the vagina area can actually end up in the ovaries, after passing through the womb and Fallopian tubes. And its very persistent particles can trigger inflammations in the intimate mucous membranes and enhance the development of malignant cells.
The risk of developing an ovarian cancer is said to be 24% higher in women using talc on their intimate areas.
Talc, an ingredient to be avoided?
It is this risk that was first recognized by a court jury in February 2016 in Missouri, United States . Johnson & Johnson were condemned to pay a family 72 million dollars (65 million euros) after they declared a woman had died of cancer due to her using a talc-based product for her own intimate hygiene.
However, to this day, talc remains an ‘unrestricted’ ingredient for cosmetics manufacturers. Apart from the mandatory indication recommending making sure babies do not inhale its powder, nothing is provided for in Europe in terms of usage restrictions, and it seems the issue is not on the agenda for now.
Should we worry about it?
Let us first reiterate that these alerts and potential risks only concern talc in the form of free powder. Compact makeup powders, eye shadows, and other blushes are therefore not an issue, and neither are mattifying creams and deodorants, where talc remains a ‘prisoner’ in a homogeneous formula.
There still remains the question of talc intended for babies and women’s intimate hygiene. Here, the precautionary principle can apply, and we can even stop using these products… even if manufacturers state they are guaranteed free from asbestos, controlled, and absolutely not hazardous. At least until scientific studies put an end to this controversy with reliable and verifiable data.