Johnson & Johnson says it'll no longer sell its talc-based baby powder anywhere, starting next year. J&J stopped US sales of the powder in 2020.
Why it matters
The safety of J&J's talc-based powder has been questioned for years, mainly over an alleged link to cancer. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the drug giant.
Lawsuits against J&J are ongoing. The company is still selling its cornstarch-based powder, currently available in the US.
Johnson & Johnson said Thursday that the company will stop selling its talc-based baby powder in 2023 but will keep selling its baby powder made with cornstarch. Johnson & Johnson had already discontinued sales of its talc powder in the US and Canada in 2020, allowing existing bottles to be sold until the product ran out.
Johnson & Johnson's baby powder, the soft white stuff meant for babies and adults alike, has been the target of legal action and scrutiny over its safety. The concern is over talc, which is used in many cosmetics in the US.
Lawsuits over the talc-based baby powder's alleged link to cancer and respiratory problems are ongoing and number in the thousands, and J&J has been ordered to pay billions of dollars to people who alleged the powder caused their cancer. The talc used in the infamous bathroom staple, the allegations go, has a chance of being contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen, and can lead to cancer or health damage with long-term use.
Johnson & Johnson said in a news release that the transition to only cornstarch powder "will help simplify our product offerings" and meet consumer needs. The company also defended the safety of the older talc powder.
"Our position on the safety of our cosmetic talc remains unchanged," J&J said. "We stand firmly behind the decades of independent scientific analysis by medical experts around the world that confirms talc-based Johnson's Baby Powder is safe, does not contain asbestos, and does not cause cancer."
In March, J&J said "decades of independent scientific testing" has concluded that cosmetic talc used in baby powder doesn't cause cancer and is safe. The company pointed to a large cohort study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which didn't find a statistically significant risk between baby powder use (including some containing talc) and ovarian cancer.
But smaller studies, and select batch tests of J&J's baby powder as well as other cosmetic products that contain talc, have hinted that talc does pose a real, if inconsistent, contamination problem. Here's what we know now about talc and its potential impact on health.
What is talc?
Talc is a soft mineral which can be crushed into a fine powder (talcum powder) for use in baby powder, blush, eye shadow and other cosmetics. It's been used for decades to wick away moisture from the skin or give your makeup look a less cakey finish.
What about asbestos?
Talc is associated closely with asbestos in the ground. Asbestos is a name for a few different minerals that are mined for commercial applications in a range of industries. It is a known carcinogen, and while not illegal in the US, its use has declined significantly since studies first began to find risks in the 1970s.
While risk varies with exposure levels and other factors, asbestos can cause lung cancer and other problems. People who work in construction or mining are more at risk for asbestos exposure.
Past tests on talc-containing cosmetic products from different organizations, including the US Food and Drug Administration, found asbestos in substantial percentages of different products tested. In 2019, the FDA published a few cosmetic company recalls for asbestos contamination, including a lot of Johnson & Johnson's baby powder.
In the European Union, talc is a restricted substance because of talc's potential risk of asbestos contamination.
Most health claims and lawsuits against talc-based baby powder surround reports of ovarian cancer, presumably after using the baby powder in the genital area. Throughout the years, many people used baby powder this way or were even taught that it's hygienic, as part of a broader marketing trend that encouraged people (women especially) to be "fresh."
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends against using talcum powder or other "vaginal treatments" as the products can irritate the area.
Is all talc powder contaminated with asbestos?
It's still not clear exactly how often talc-based products, like J&J's original baby powder, might be contaminated with asbestos — the million-dollar question. In 2018, the FDA began testing samples of cosmetic products that contain talc for the presence of asbestos, and those tests have led to several product recalls. In the past, batches of blush, eye shadow and baby powder have all been recalled over potential asbestos contamination.
While certain batches of cosmetics over the years were found to have been contaminated with asbestos, others were not. This highlights the possibility of a lot or batch problem during production that some cosmetic testing companies have pointed to as a potential issue, like when traces of benzene were, but not others of the same brand.
J&J's cornstarch baby powder doesn't contain talc, and it's the only J&J baby powder available for sale in the US now. Many other companies have also removed talc from their baby powder formulas, but talc powder is still available for sale from other companies since it's not illegal.
What does the research say?
There's no research that definitively links Johnson & Johnson's talc-based baby powder with ovarian cancer, but the medical consensus on the safety of talc when used cosmetically remains murky. According to the American Cancer Society, it's not clear whether products that contain talc (and don't contain asbestos) could still increase the risk for cancer, as studies in both humans and lab animals have produced conflicting results. The society bases its conclusions on the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, which doesn't classify talc in general as carcinogenic, but classifies genital use of talc as "possibly carcinogenic to humans."
Research linking asbestos contamination with risk of cancer is clear, however: The National Cancer Institute lists ovarian cancer as one of the types associated with asbestos.
One large study of thousands of women published in 2020 in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the risk between baby powder use in the genital area and ovarian cancer didn't find a "statistically significant" risk. Notably, and as reported by USA Today, the study didn't differentiate between talc-based baby powder and other kinds, like the cornstarch Johnson & Johnson powder currently available in the US.
Bottom line? Cosmetics are regulated in vague ways, and the potential for harm with a contaminated product could be there after years-long use with trace amounts in daily items, or exposure to large amounts through occupational hazards.
What's going on with J&J's lawsuits?
To move around the lawsuits, Johnson & Johnson has employed what's called the "Texas two-step" -- splitting off part of its company into another state, renaming it something new (LTL Management), moving all the lawsuits over to the new company and then filing for bankruptcy, which according to the law, pauses the lawsuits and prevents the alleged victims from getting Johnson & Johnson's assets, since its LTL arm was declared bankrupt.
In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said LTL is "ready to work with claimants' counsel and the mediator to reach an equitable and efficient resolution as ordered by the Bankruptcy Court." The company also said it "consistently and unequivocally endorsed early resolution for the benefit of all parties."
Recently, a Bloomberg report unveiled another, darker layer to the company's history with the powder: Unsealed court documents reported by Bloomberg following a recent trial found that in a J&J-funded study more than 50 years ago, about a dozen prison inmates were injected with asbestos in order to compare the carcinogenic mineral with talc. Most of the inmates were Black men, according to the report.
"We deeply regret the conditions under which these studies were conducted, and in no way do they reflect the values or practices we employ today," Johnson & Johnson said in a statement, also pointing to the fact other companies and agencies conducting medical research -- including the US government -- participated in similar practices.
While the ugly side of medical and cosmetics testing in the US is not limited to one company, the unease around Johnson & Johnson's baby powder persists, especially as some reports say the company has known about the potential for danger all along. Media reports from 2018 by Reuters and The New York Times said executives at the company have been aware of a potential asbestos contamination since the 1970s. Johnson & Johnson denied this and referred to a statement that claims the tests in question were proven to be inaccurate.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.