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Sometimes I want to bang my head against the wall. Law vs Intellect.

February 26, 2016

I knew this would happen.

When I first saw Talc-gate on Wednesday night I felt sick to my stomach because it confirmed my worst fear, that evidence was no longer needed to win a trial that involves chemicals and people who have cancer and that a logical, thorough and intellectual approach to investigating such cases was no longer necessary.

There is one version of the story here in case you missed it. 

This blog post is not about defending the cosmetic industry as a whole or  one or all multinationals, it is about digging into what we do and don’t know as a way of working out the implications of this.  As long-time readers of mine will know I am an independent chemist, I work with clients who mainly choose natural or organic formulations (although not all do and that’s absolutely fine).  I have had contracts with multinational companies and larger organisations through my consulting work but the contracts never stretch to any ‘you must not say this’  or ‘you have to defend that’ clause.  I live and die alone, independent and that’s how I like it.  I am free.

So this is what is known about talc.

  • Talc is a mineral, a very, very soft rock. It can be dug up and turned into powder with very minimal processing in fact it can be scratched with a finger nail into a powder.  Another popular talc-containing mineral is soap stone.


  • Chemically talc is a hydrated magnesium silicate H2Mg3(SiO3)4 so yes, it is also a source of magnesium!   There is nothing about talc’s chemistry that makes it particularly dangerous or worrying as the elements that make up the mineral – hydrogen, magnesium, silicone and oxygen are all pretty easy-going in the form that we find them here.  However, that doesn’t mean that talc comes zero risk.  The fact that talc can easily be broken down into powder means that it can pose a breathing hazard.  Our lungs do not cope well with dust and prolonged dust exposure can kill us either slowly or with immediate effect.  So we had better look into that more closely….
  • Physically the magnesium silicate forms sheet-like layers of crystals which break down into smaller layers when force is applied liberating smaller ‘chunks’ of crystals.  The sheets are flat and somewhat jagged in shape as we can see here in a scanning electron microscope image.  Talc’s crystal shape plus its chemistry are absolutely critical to assessing the risks and hazards posed by talc. More importantly it is these features plus one other that allow us to work out relative safety – how safe talc is compared to other alternatives.

talc scanning electron microscope image

So, at this point it looks like everything is pretty good for talc. But it isn’t.  We haven’t considered impurities and we still need to quantify the risks posed by inhalation of talc-mineral shaped particles (imagining that there is no contamination).

  • Impurities are where things get ugly for talc.  Talc and another mineral, Tremolite have a very close and loving relationship and as such often form together.  This would be Ok chemically as tremolite (Ca2(Mg5.0-4.5Fe2+0.0-0.5)Si8O22(OH)2.)  is not much to write home about that way being composed of the same stuff as talc plus some calcium and a bit of iron.   The trouble with Tremolite is its shape.  


  • Tremolite, the mineral that forms next to talc adopts a needle-like structure as we can see above.  Molecular structures such as this are known as ‘asbestos’.  So, just to make it clear that ‘asbestos’ is a word used to describe a molecular shape rather than an absolute chemistry.  Asbestos is a known human carcinogen.  The reason that asbestos is so dangerous for humans is that its structure is so needle-like and its form so easily sheared (into powder) that it can be inhaled very easily.  Once inhaled the needle-like structure can become embedded into living tissue where it causes inflammation and damage, over time – usually between 10-50 years its presence has been shown to double the risk of developing lung cancer, a link that was first found in the 1950’s. 

So now we have the source of the ‘talcum powder causes cancer’ storm and we find that it’s not talc at all but asbestos that is the link.  We now need to find out if asbestos is in talcum powder…

1) J Toxicol Environ Health. 1976 Nov;2(2):255-84.   Consumer talcums and powders: mineral and chemical characterization.

This paper found that 10 out of 20 commercial talcum powders tested contained asbestos fibres in the consumer product.  Some had asbestos present in small amounts (less than 0.1%) while others had up to 14%.   The paper is from 1976 and clearly states that yes, talcum powder was highly contaminated.

2) FDA review 2009-2010

In order to answer consumer concerns over talc the FDA (in the USA) conducted a substantial review of talc (as an ingredient).  This study found no detectable amount of asbestos contamination in cosmetic grade talc.  This doesn’t mean that talc has no asbestos present at all, it means that the tests could not detect asbestos down to the limits of their detection method and with the machinery used being extremely sensitive it is safe to assume that todays cosmetic talc is free from asbestos.

It is clear from looking at the above that something changed in the market between the 1970’s and the 2000’s and indeed it did with a voluntary directive in the mid 1970s to clean talc up.  We know that talc is a powder, talc can contain asbestos, breathing in asbestos doubles your risk of getting lung cancer therefore talcum powder should be free from asbestos (as it can be breathed in and accidentally ingested).   But this case wasn’t talking about lung cancer, it was talking about ovarian cancer and it was referencing behaviour (talcum powder use) from the 1960’s-1970’s – when talcum powder did contain asbestos.

Which begs the question – can talcum powder reach the ovaries?

There are currently no studies available to me that show talcum powder having reached ovarian tissue.  So, maybe we need to see if asbestos can reach the ovaries…..

There is evidence that asbestos fibres can reach ovarian tissue as we see in this study here, published in 2007.  Do keep in mind that these women worked in a factory where asbestos exposure was a work place hazard.

An earlier study in 1996 also found asbestos fibres in ovarian tissue.   What is interesting in this study is that asbestos found in ovarian tissue was of a shape most commonly found from environmental exposure rather than that common to talc pre 1976.

So how does asbestos get inside the ovary?

Well I’ll leave that to your imagination but I will say that we really MUST start considering asbestos as a whole and rid ourselves of this cosmetic talc bias that is clouding our vision.

The world was a different place in the 1960’s and 70’s – different to how we live now….

I survived the 70s

I could go on and on and on and on here but I won’t as I’m sure you have better things to do so I’ll just sum up what we know here:

  • Talc can contain asbestos and before the 1970’s it most likely did.  These days it doesn’t.
  • Asbestos can get into ovary tissue but the shape and type of asbestos found in ovary tissue is predominantly if not entirely (I’m not sure) the type used in building materials rather than talc.
  • Putting something on your perineum isn’t the only (or even the best) way of getting stuff into your ovaries.

Look, I don’t know if Johnson and Johnson adopted the ‘clean up your talc’ message early, later or super late.  I don’t know if they or anyone else suppressed information about the presence of asbestos in cosmetic talc and I don’t know if they or anyone else did stuff like that to gain a market advantage.  What I do know if that cleaning up a process takes time and you must have the analytical capacity to measure your efforts so it is logical that risks were known about before action was taken.  But in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s the risk on everyone’s lips was that of inhalation and not of it getting into the ovaries or anywhere else for that matter.  It is possible (again, I’m just speculating here) that a talcum powder manufacturer might feel that there is no risk from a product that isn’t designed to be inhaled OR that the risk (inhalation) can be adequately managed through packaging.   Again, the world was a different place then, just ask your grandparents about how they played with the mercury that spilled out of broken thermometers or the lead that lined roofs or pipe work….

We still don’t know if applying powder ‘down below’ is a good, bad or indifferent idea because we haven’t looked into that yet.  This is also significant as I have customers who will feel that this doesn’t apply to them because their ‘talc’ is made from cornflour or tapioca.   We can speculate that the shape of these alternatives makes them less likely to be a problem but do we really know?

And that’s not the only problem here.

This case has been won despite no cause-effect evidence being presented.   I don’t know if the deceased woman’s ovaries were tested and if they were what was found.

This case is a win for lawyers, nothing more, nothing less. The world is no safer as a result of this case.

It sets a precedent for suing on ‘potential risk’ rather than ‘proven reality’.

That worries me because there are many ingredients we use in cosmetics that come with risk attached:

  • Caffeine
  • A wide range of essential oils
  • Natural minerals
  • Skin penetration enhancing ingredients
  • Skin delivery systems
  • Some herbs
  • Vegetable oils rich in free oleic acid
  • The restricted ‘chemicals’ that we use in cosmetic and in other industries but use in such a way as to practically eliminate known risk.
  • Anything sold in powder form that could be inhaled.
  • Anything that could penetrate the skin – anti-ageing, lubricants, wash products etc.

The only way we can reduce risk is to know and understand more.  Understanding more about potential carcinogens and toxicity involves long-term testing and generally that testing involves animals. Do remember that carcinogenity is often dose-dependent rather than absolute, especially in cosmetic chemistry.

I was listening to a pod cast the other day about the state of the world, border control and refugee policy through the voice of a lady who had come to Australia as an asylum seeker on a boat – if anyone knows anything about Australian immigration policy our government see’s this as the worst kind of asylum seeker!   Even though she is now safe here in Australia that safety hasn’t come without strings attached – her freedom.  Because of the way she entered Australia (illegally) she is not allowed to leave the country and neither are her family allowed to come in and see her.   I wish to leave you with that thought here, to mull on the link between freedom and safety.

Complete and utter freedom has risks and danger attached.

But now imagine a scenario where you are completely and utterly safe. Can you imagine one?  Look around your home, your sanctuary, is there anything there that can harm you?  If so remove it.   What is left?

Unless we wake up and start thinking about things properly, to start using our intellect, our rationality, our passion and our courage we will all end up locked up if not practically but metaphorically.

Don’t let the lawyers win.

Amanda x

PS: If you are still wanting more this paper entitled ‘Perineal Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer‘ is fascinating stuff.  I also wish to draw your attention to the fact that talc is actually used to treat some lung issues. What a strange twist of fate!


4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 29, 2016 8:26 am

    Thanks Amanda, great information as always.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      February 29, 2016 8:55 am

      Thanks Melissa.

  2. November 13, 2018 12:28 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation of the facts and about talc and your logical explanation of it’s risks. Thank you!


  1. What happens when you see things differently. | Realize Beauty

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