Women are over four times less likely to develop mesothelioma in their lifetime than men are. Most people are exposed to asbestos, the only cause of mesothelioma, in trade occupations that historically employ mostly men.
Some women, with no occupational or military service-related potential for asbestos exposure, develop mesothelioma seemingly out of the blue. This has puzzled researchers and doctors for years.
A report released last month in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health came up with a possible reason—cosmetic talc. Cosmetic talc is found in baby powder, blush, foundation, makeup creams, eye shadow and other cosmetic supplies.
According to the report, researchers have found a relationship between this talc and mesothelioma. The researchers only specifically tested one brand of talcum powder commonly used among seven women with mesothelioma. It is important to note that most cosmetic products are periodically tested for safety, so the risk of developing mesothelioma from this is very low.
Contaminated ‘Cashmere Bouquet’ Talcum Powder?
The relationship between talc, mesothelioma and other cancers has been debated for decades. There have been conflicting reports on the effects of talc in several cancers, and the results released in October have rekindled the dialogue over the effects of talc.
“Exposure to talc has also been suggested as a causative factor in the development of ovarian carcinomas, gynecological tumors, and mesothelioma,” said the authors of the report.
How could these products cause mesothelioma? Cosmetic talc can become contaminated with asbestos. Both substances are naturally occurring minerals that may be found in the same mining regions. Some samples of cosmetic talc taken in the 1980s, when asbestos was much more common, reported asbestos contamination as high as 90 percent.
The common brand used by the women evaluated in this report was Cashmere Bouquet, and they “had no other source of asbestos exposure” other than this product.
The authors of the report also said: “This brand of talcum powder contained asbestos and the application of talcum powder released inhalable asbestos fibers.”
Researchers found relatively low levels of asbestos in the cosmetic talc, but they found that there is a high likelihood of inhaling airborne fibers during the application of beauty products (and the American Cancer Society recognizes there is no clear safe level of asbestos exposure).
This is partially due to the environments in which makeup is applied.
Small bathrooms are confined spaces with little ventilation, which makes the concentration of airborne asbestos more potent. It’s also impossible to tell with the naked eye how much asbestos is in the air and for how long. Asbestos fibers will stay airborne much longer than any visible makeup powders.
FDA’s Role Monitoring Cosmetics
The question at hand is whether other cosmetics containing talc pose the same risks as Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder.
The FDA’s website states: “Cosmetic companies have a legal responsibility for the safety and labeling of their products and ingredients, but the law does not require them to share their safety information with FDA.”
However, before the FDA takes action on a harmful product in the market, they need “sound scientific data to show that it is harmful under its intended use.” Fortunately, thanks to research like the Cashmere Bouquet report, the FDA periodically questions the possibility of talc contaminated with asbestos.
In 2008 they conducted a study of 34 cosmetic products purchased from retail stores in Washington, D.C. The results found no asbestos contamination in these products. However, out of nine major cosmetic suppliers, five declined to offer samples of their products. Additionally, 34 products is only a small fraction of the cosmetics out there. To put this in perspective, one company that had its products tested has over 300 cosmetic products of its own, many of which are likely to contain talc.
The popular cosmetic brands Maybelline blush and Johnson’s Baby Powder both tested negative for any trace of asbestos in the FDA’s 2008 study.
Other Explanations for Mesothelioma in Women
As mentioned earlier, women make up a minority of mesothelioma cases. The typical reasons used to explain cases of mesothelioma in women are secondary asbestos exposure and, in rare cases, natural exposure.
Secondary exposure usually occurs when a person who worked in a job traditionally associated with asbestos exposure (electricians, miners, etc.) would carry home asbestos fibers on their clothing and transfer the fibers to their spouse. Natural asbestos exposure happens when regions where asbestos minerals are naturally found are released into the air.
These are both explanations that should be taken into account when attempting to evaluate cases of women with mesothelioma. Yet, the researchers who discovered the contamination of Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder with asbestos seemed adamant that the cosmetic was at least partially responsible for the women’s diagnosis. This research has produced possible explanations for why some women may get mesothelioma, but the risk of developing the disease from cosmetic products is still extremely low.