As Johnson & Johnson continues to fight allegations that the talc in its Baby Powder contains cancer-causing asbestos, two cosmetics manufacturers have issued voluntary recalls of popular products in which recent FDA testing revealed asbestos contamination.

According to a recent FDA notification, the products in question are Beauty Plus Global Contour Effects Palette No. 2, and Claire’s JoJo Siwa Makeup Set. Women who currently have these products are advised to stop using them and to report any suspected medical problems via the agency’s online MedWatch form.

Although Johnson and Johnson Baby Powder and similar products have gotten most of the media attention in recent months, many cosmetics also contain talc. One of the softest minerals in existence, talc is used in makeup products as a way to dilute the pigments, which otherwise would be too intense. Talc has been an ingredient in cosmetics for decades. Makeup products that typically contain talc include:

  • blush
  • concealer
  • eyeliner and eye shadow
  • foundation
  • mascara
  • lipstick
  • rouge

Today, recent revelations of possible carcinogenicity and asbestos contamination have caused a number of cosmetics manufacturers to rethink their formulations. Talc by itself is well tolerated by most people, but if it is ingested or comes into contact with mucous membranes or a break in the skin, it can cause problems, including infections and inflammation. Talc by itself has also been implicated in the development of ovarian cancer, largely due to the particles’ interactions with human antibodies, which identify them as pathogens.

There is also the issue of asbestos contamination. Like asbestos, talc is a silicate mineral that is formed by similar geologic processes. The two are often found in proximity to one another. Asbestos is known to cause cancer, including a particularly deadly and painful form of the disease known as mesothelioma. Asbestos is, in fact, one of only two known causes of the disease (the other being radiation exposure).

Does this mean women should give up on using cosmetics? Not necessarily. So far, there have been no reports of anyone contracting lung cancer as a result of using talc-containing makeup. For those who are concerned, a number of makeup companies have been eliminating talc as an ingredient. There are also other ingredients in makeup that may be of greater concern, including parabens, which reportedly cause disruption in the endocrine system, and coal tar, a substance the International Agency for Research on Cancer has deemed to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

In light of this, many women turn to makeup products that are marketed as “all-natural,” although in the absence of regulations such a label is virtually meaningless. For those who are truly concerned, there is a cell phone app, known as “Think Dirty,” that enables users to search thousands of products in order to learn more about what they contain. In the meantime, given the dangers of asbestos contamination in talc, it may be best to err on the side of caution.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.