The safety controversy surrounding Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder continues. In December 2018, investigative reporting by the New York Times and Reuters claimed that, for decades, Johnson & Johnson covered up the presence of asbestos (a known carcinogen) in some samples of its talc-based baby powder products. The reports spurred investigations by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the company has faced ongoing lawsuits brought by people who said these products caused their cancers, including many who had ovarian cancer. Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay a massive $4.69 billion settlement as a result of these lawsuits, but the company has maintained that its cosmetic talc-based products were not contaminated with asbestos and did not cause these cases of cancer.
Now for the latest: On Oct. 18, J&J voluntarily recalled a single lot of its talc-based baby powder after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that a sample tested positive for asbestos. Importantly, no one has reported adverse events from exposure to this lot of products to the FDA, according to a press release from the agency. “The FDA would like to assure consumers that this new finding associated with the J&J sample is specific to one J&J product lot only,” the agency tells SELF in a statement. Johnson & Johnson said in its own press release that the recall was initiated “out of an abundance of caution” after a sample from a single bottle bought online detected “sub-trace” levels of asbestos at no more than 0.00002%.
All of that said, it can be confusing to know whether it’s safe to use baby powder or other talc-based products—regardless of what company makes them. Read on to find out.
Here’s what you need to know about the possibility of asbestos in baby powder and other talc products.
Quick debrief for the uninitiated: Talc, a naturally occurring mineral used commonly in cosmetic products like baby powder and face makeup, is thought to be safe in its pure form, the FDA says. The mineral asbestos, on the other hand, is a known carcinogen that can potentially contaminate products containing talc because it’s sometimes found near talc mining sites.
Eleven days after announcing the recall, J&J released a statement, standing by its claim that its baby powder is actually asbestos-free. According to J&J’s press release, two third-party laboratories found no asbestos after performing 15 new tests on the same exact bottle that the FDA said tested positive for the carcinogen. The third-party labs also performed 48 new tests on other samples from the recalled lot the bottle came from and reportedly found no evidence of asbestos.
Interestingly enough, J&J has raised the possibility that lab contamination could make it seem as though its products contain asbestos when they really don’t. According to J&J’s press release, the only time either of the third-party labs found asbestos in the product samples was after deviating from their standard testing protocol. One of the labs allowed a portable air conditioner that was itself contaminated with asbestos to pollute some of the samples, J&J claims.
Although the company does not state outright that this is what happened with the original positive test, one way to read this information involves that implication. “This finding underscores the importance of investigating any positive test result,” says the company’s release.
So what should you make of these conflicting test results? Is this baby powder potentially toxic or isn’t it? (Trust issues, much?!) When asked about the discrepancy between the FDA’s initial positive test results and the negative results from J&J’s investigatory follow-up, a J&J spokesperson directed us back to this statement in its October 29 release: “Rigorous and third-party testing confirms there is no asbestos in Johnson’s Baby Powder. We stand by the safety of our product.”
When we asked the FDA about the discrepancy, it, too, stood by its results. It also explained how both the positive and negative test results may both be accurate.
“Sampling of talc-containing cosmetics is done on a small amount of product, 100 nanograms, which is a small proportion of a larger sample, in this case, a [623-gram] bottle,” the FDA tells SELF in a statement. “Given the powdered nature of the product, we expect non-uniformity in the distribution of any contaminant fibers…. Different samples may provide different results.”
The FDA adds that in its own testing of the bottle that yielded a positive result for asbestos, it divided that one sample into three portions, one of which tested negative and two of which tested positive. It also points out that different methodologies of sample testing can add another element of variation to the results. “Given this, we stand by our findings,” the agency says.
With both the FDA and J&J defending the veracity of their testing and the investigation ongoing, we’re currently at an impasse.
“I don’t know what to make of that positive test,” Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale University, tells SELF. “We certainly have no corroborating data to show that [the initial positive result] is real.” While Dr. Minkin points out that she is an outside observer here, she says that, ultimately, based on the facts currently available to us, the positive result may well be a “fluke.”
Yes, it could be a true positive. But it could also be something like contamination in the lab as opposed to the product or a false positive, Dr. Minkin says. As she points out, occasional false positives occur in basically every area of science.
Is there any new information on talc-based products and cancer?
The evidence connecting talc-based products with cancer is just as unsettled as it was before this recent finding.
Although some studies going back to the 1960s have suggested a possible link between talc powder and ovarian cancer, the body of research as a whole does not demonstrate a causal link, according to the FDA and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). As SELF previously reported, the idea that talc itself increases the risk of cancer has been questioned, in part because the data are inconclusive, and in part because the potential mechanism involved isn’t apparent. (You can read a deep dive into the science on this here.)
The plausibility of a potential connection between talc and cancer is much higher if it’s true that asbestos has been present in talc-based baby powder, as SELF previously reported—which this latest recall suggests as a possibility. (In general, asbestos is much more clearly linked with lung cancer because inhaling the mineral can cause damage.)
For what it’s worth, Dr. Minkin still has zero qualms about her patients using talc-based baby powder, even in light of this latest news. “The most important thing is for people not to get excessively worried,” she says. “The risk [of asbestos being in your baby powder] is really, really small.”
Here’s what to do if you have J&J baby powder (or any talc-based products) at home.
If you have Johnson & Johnson baby powder at home, check the lot number to see whether it’s part of the recall. The products being recalled are from lot #22318RB. You can find the lot number on the back of the bottle, right under the cap, per the FDA. If your bottle has that exact lot number, you should stop using it immediately. You can also contact Johnson & Johnson for a refund via its Consumer Care Center at www.johnsonsbaby.com or by calling (866) 565-2229, according to the company’s press release.
Even if you have baby powder that’s not part of the recall, you should feel empowered to make whatever choice feels smart and safe for you and your family. If having peace of mind means chucking your talc-based baby powder and other products, have at it. As the FDA put it in its statement to SELF, “If consumers have concerns about their cosmetic products, they should stop using those products immediately and discard the products.”
Dr. Minkin points out that you can always switch a cornstarch-based baby powder, which does the job just as well for most people. “Use what works for you,” she says.
The bottom line: There’s still a lot we don’t know.
If you don’t feel okay using these types of products anymore, you can stop (and talk to your doctor if that would help).
If you’re going to keep using these products, also keep an eye on any upcoming news about them. You could argue that this whole debacle lowers the odds that any new information here will be overlooked or swept under the rug. Consumers, companies, and regulators alike are more inclined to monitor the situation pretty vigilantly now.
Plus, we’re going to be getting even more information about asbestos in consumer products shortly. “The FDA expects to issue the full results of its current set of cosmetics testing by the end of the year,” the agency tells SELF in a statement.
That means we’re no doubt going to continue to see asbestos popping up in the news from time to time—along with fears of what each new update might mean. “This is going to be out there for a while,” Dr. Minkin says, but “there’s a lot more stuff people could be worried about.”