You might have recently seen this piece of news: pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) announced on May 19 that it would stop selling talc-based baby powder in the United States and Canada, according to CNA.
While beauty products are often discontinued without much commotion, this one made the news for an important reason — J&J has long been involved in controversy over their use of talc, especially with multiple lawsuits in the US that allege asbestos in their talc products, an ingredient linked to cancer risks. Additionally, with them being a trusted household brand worldwide, this news impacts many people, especially parents, who may be using Johnson’s baby powder daily.
But before we get alarmed, it’s important to know more about the facts, context, and controversy surrounding this issue. Firstly, what are the claims against J&J and their talc-based baby powder? What is talc, and is it truly harmful or can it be considered safe? And finally, is the baby powder still being sold in Singapore, and are there alternatives to talc-based baby powder?
Why is Johnson & Johnson discontinuing the sale of baby powder in the US and Canada?
In short, J&J says this is due to declining consumer demand. The official announcement by the North American division of Johnson & Johnson is that talc-based powder is one of over 100 products discontinued for US and Canada, after they assessed declining consumer demand during a portfolio review by the company.
Johnson & johnson’s Press statement
“As part of a portfolio assessment related to COVID-19, in March, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health stopped shipping hundreds of items in the US and Canada to prioritise high-demand products and to allow for appropriate social distancing in manufacturing and distribution facilities,” quotes an AFP article from an official press statement.
“Demand for talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in North America has been declining due in large part to changes in consumer habits and fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising.”
The company also mentioned that existing stocks of the powder will still be sold in the US and Canada until they run out, while the product will remain for sale in countries where there is “significantly higher consumer demand”.
What is talc, and why are there concerns about its safety?
In that earlier statement, J&J mentions “misinformation around the safety of the product”. These safety issues have largely been raised by the North American community, particularly the US, as traces of asbestos, an unsafe ingredient, may be found in talc products. Johnson & Johnson, however, “remains steadfastly confident in the safety of talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder”, and calls these “unfounded allegations”.
What Is Talc?
Talc, or talcum powder, is a mineral in clay mined from underground deposits, and is known to be the softest mineral on Earth. The naturally-occurring mineral is also highly stable, chemically inert and odourless. Highly-purified grades of talc are mined, then milled, before being incorporated into consumer products, which makes it safe for everyday items.
What Is talc used for?
A highly-purified grade of talc is used widely in cosmetics products, including lipsticks, mascara, face powder, blush, eyeshadow, and foundation, in order to create a smooth, silky feel while absorbing moisture.
For body products, antiperspirant is a common use as well, and of course, we know it for being the primary ingredient in most brands of baby powders, not just Johnson’s baby powder.
On the ingredients list, it’s usually listed as “talc”, “talcum”, or “magnesium silicate”. In addition to beauty products, other common uses also include toothpaste, chewing gum, aspirin, olive oil, and polished rice, even child-safe crayons.
How Can talc Be Harmful?
This happens when traces of asbestos are found in talc.
Asbestos itself is a naturally occurring mineral, though scientific studies show exposure to asbestos is linked to several diseases, including cancers. Since both talc and asbestos are found underground, veins of it can be found in talc deposits, leading to a risk of cross-contamination, geologists say. Still, asbestos-free talc has been used in baby powder and other cosmetics since the 1970s.
Several scientific studies have been made on the use of talcum powder and its risks, particularly its use on genitals and the risk of ovarian cancer — however, these have so far presented mixed results. One study makes such a claim, but there are concerns on the reliability of its results, since. Other studies have argued there is no link at all.
what about the risk of inhaling baby powder?
This one’s more straightforward, particularly for parents — paediatricians are concerned about how inhaling baby powder (talc or cornstarch) may cause respiratory problems if they enter the lungs, especially for babies.
“People who are using these large amounts of baby powder, particularly around the baby’s face, run the risk of the child inhaling this very fine particulate matter into the lungs,” says Joel Kahan, M.D., director of pediatrics at Syosset Hospital in New York.
Instead, oil-based lotions or creams are encouraged, as well as cornstarch, a common talc alternative, which comprises larger particles that are less of a threat to the airway. For parents, keep baby powder away from your face and your child’s face, and out of reach of your children.
What is the controversy about talc-based baby powders in the US?
The company has denied claims that their talc powder contains asbestos, however thousands of lawsuits and a product recall have been made over this very issue.
lawsuits against J&J
Johnson & Johnson faces more than 16,000 lawsuits from consumers claiming its talc products, including Johnson’s Baby Powder, caused ovarian cancer; these are currently pending before a US district judge in New Jersey. There’s also a 2018 case in Missouri where Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay USD4.7bn in damages, a record verdict, to 22 women who said they had developed ovarian cancer after using baby powder and other talc products for decades. The lawsuits allege that the company’s talc products have been contaminated with asbestos.
However, J&J has consistently defended the safety and integrity of its talc products. Some of these cases have also been overturned in the respective states’ appeal courts, and this includes a 2017 Missouri ruling that overturned a $110 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson.
Additionally, a press statement on J&J’s website, dated 10 October 2019, states that a Californian verdict ruled in favour of the company. The jury ruled that Johnson’s Baby Powder does not contain asbestos and was not the cause of the plaintiff’s disease. “This is the seventh jury that has found in favor of Johnson & Johnson, and importantly, all of the verdicts against the Company that have been through the appeals process have been overturned.”
A Product recall in 2019
On 18 October 2019, J&J announced that it would be recalling 33,000 bottles of baby powder in the US, after a bottle in the batch was found by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to contain traces of asbestos.
The recall was limited to a single batch that was produced and shipped in the United States in 2018, and marked the first time the company has recalled baby powder for possible asbestos contamination, and the first time US regulators announced finding asbestos in the product.
However, a subsequent follow-up investigation by Johnson & Johnson in December 2019 confirms that Johnson’s Baby Powder is safe and free of asbestos, which directly refutes the findings by FDA.
A press statement on their website states that these tests were conducted by two third-party labs, and “show asbestos was not present in the single bottle that FDA’s contracted lab, AMA Analytical Services, Inc. (AMA), tested, nor was it present in retained samples of the finished lot from which the bottle was produced”.
“Additionally, the Company’s investigation revealed that the testing protocol at AMA deviated from standard practice and that AMA did not execute a full asbestos confirmation as required by their lab’s test method.”
How about in Singapore?
J&J said it will continue to sell both its talc- and cornstarch-based products in other markets around the world — so, does this include Singapore?
We reached out to Johnson & Johnson Singapore and here’s what they said:
From Johnson & Johnson Singapore
“Johnson & Johnson remains steadfastly confident in the safety of talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder. Decades of scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of our product. The decision to discontinue talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in North America is based on a declining consumer demand for the product in North America, due in part to ongoing misleading litigation advertising.”
“In each market around the world we prioritise our portfolios based on consumer preferences and demand. In other regions around the world, consumers use talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder as part of their family’s personal care routine and there is significantly higher demand for the product. In Singapore, we continue to sell both types of Johnson’s Baby Powder — talc-based and corn starch-based.”
Yes, the talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder will still be sold in Singapore.
This is a list of their talc-based products still available in Singapore: Johnson’s® baby powder, Johnson’s® Bedtime™ baby powder, Johnson’s® Blossoms™ baby powder, Johnson’s® ActiveFresh™ baby powder. All of them list “talc” under their ingredients list, and you may purchase them from major retailers such as Fairprice, Watsons and Shopee.
Is Johnson’s Baby Powder safe?
With more context, this is the general conclusion — talc itself is safe, but there’s a risk of contamination with asbestos, so we have to put talc-based products, whether it’s Johnson’s Baby Powder or those of other brands, under close scrutiny.
To date, Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has not detected asbestos in J&J’s baby powders. The brand has also maintained that their talc powders undergo regular and highest-quality standards to ensure they’re asbestos free.
Johnson & johnson Says:
“Johnson & Johnson remains steadfastly confident in the safety of talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder. Decades of scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of our product. We will continue to vigorously defend the product, its safety, and the unfounded allegations against it and the Company in the courtroom. All verdicts against the Company that have been through the appeals process have been overturned,” as mentioned in the press statement.
Also, from the company’s safety assurance page, they list 5 important facts about talc and its safety.
Most importantly, “JOHNSON’S® Baby talc products are made using U.S. Pharmacopeial (USP) grade talc to ensure it meets the highest-quality, purity and compliance standards”. Their talc is also carefully selected, processed and tested to ensure that is asbestos free, which is confirmed by regular testing.
No traces of asbestos were detected in Johnson & Johnson talcum powders sold in Singapore, said the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) on 29 October 2019. The use of asbestos in cosmetic products like baby powder is prohibited in Singapore under the cosmetics product regulation. HSA said that Johnson & Johnson has submitted regular test reports which show the absence of asbestos in their products sold in Singapore.
Safe Alternatives: Talc-Free Baby Powders
Talc-based powders, particularly from reputable companies who undergo stringent testing, are generally safe for use. However, you might still prefer to err on the side of caution and go for talc-free alternatives instead.
While household brands such as Johnson & Johnson, Kodomo and Pigeon all feature talc in their baby powders, a safe alternative would be baby powder that contains Cornstarch. Made from corn kernels, cornstarch is natural, highly absorbent and helps keep skin cool and dry. Cornstarch particles are slightly larger than talc and have no known side effects or health risks.
Common alternatives to talc-based baby powder also include: arrowroot starch or tapioca starch powders, oat flour, baking soda, zinc-based diaper rash creams, instead of powders, for babies.
For this, there’s actually a lesser-known JOHNSON’s Cornstarch Baby Powder, made with 99% natural cornstarch. It is currently available on Amazon Prime Now (mobile only), and selected Fairprice Extra and Sheng Siong supermarkets.
Other alternatives include these by GAIA, Pureen and Burt’s Bees, which also use cornstarch. Those using 100% natural or organic ingredients are often far more pricey though, while Burt’s Bees is currently only available via trusted sellers online.