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Johnson & Johnson will stop selling talc-based baby powder

This announcement is long overdue, but apples only to the North American market.

Johnson & Johnson announced this week that it will be discontinuing sales of its talc-based baby powder in North America. Any bottles that remain on store shelves can be sold, but they will only be replaced by cornstarch-based formulas. Talc-based powders will, however, continue to be sold in other countries.

The announcement is a tremendous concession by a company that, for decades, has been fighting the suggestion that its iconic baby powder causes harm to human health, namely ovarian cancer, as thousands of women have claimed. The company has been mired in lawsuits – the New York Times reports that it faced 19,400 in March 2020 – and had already paid out $4.7 billion in a case involving 22 women in 2018.

Despite the release of internal records dating back fifty years that revealed J&J's upper management's concern about the mingling of asbestos with talc, two minerals that are frequently found in the same places, and the fact that asbestos was first linked to ovarian cancer in 1958, the company has persisted in saying its products are safe. Even this most recent announcement is justified as a move to reflect a shifting market: “Demand for the talc-based version had slumped. The decision to discontinue the product stemmed from a re-evaluation of its product portfolio.”

Even if the company still refuses to take responsibility, people are relieved that the products will no longer be available. The New York Times cites lawyer Mark Lanier, who represented thousands of families suing Johnson & Johnson: “They can give all the reasons they want — I’m just thankful the stuff is off the market. I do believe this will save untold misery and lives.”

In a statement released this week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) commends the move, but urges other companies not be complacent. All cosmetics companies have known about the dangers of talc since the 1950s, and all have been granted the ability to carry out their own asbestos testing by the Food and Drug Administration. The problem is, this in-house testing uses a detection method that reveals only some, but not all, asbestos fibers. And considering that “it only takes one asbestos fiber, lodged in the lungs, to cause mesothelioma decades later,” this is a seriously problematic loophole.

The FDA is currently inching toward tighter controls – long overdue, as cosmetics regulations haven't been overhauled since the 1930s – but it's moving too slowly for the EWG's liking:

“Efforts to finally modernize cosmetics law have been sidelined, for the moment, by the COVID-19 pandemic. And the FDA is not proposing to make this new, more accurate detection method mandatory. That’s why responsible companies should follow the lead of J&J and simply end the use of talc in loose powders [my emphasis].”

J&J has been in the spotlight, but many other companies use asbestos-tainted talc, too, in their cosmetics. The EWG has identified more than 2,000 products with asbestos in their ingredients, including eyeshadows marketed toward kids and teens that are currently sold at Claire's and on Amazon.

So, for now, the responsibility lies with shoppers to read the ingredient lists carefully and ensure that the products they buy do not contain talc. Fortunately it is easier than ever to find safe alternatives. You can find many clean beauty brands featured here on Treehugger or visit the EWG's extensive SkinDeep database that rates thousands of products on safety.