We learned recently that Johnson & Johnson, makers of baby powder, knew for years that their talc contained trace amounts of asbestos, and hid that fact from regulators and from people who sued them over cases of cancer. Here’s what you need to know.
Why is there asbestos in baby powder??
Baby powder is traditionally made from talc, which is a mineral mined from the ground.
Asbestos, today best known as a cancer-causing nightmare substance, is also a mineral mined from the ground. It forms delicate fibres but cannot be burned, so it was used to make fireproof insulation and trick tablecloths for medieval parties before the cancer thing was common knowledge.
Talc and asbestos may occur near each other in nature, so if you’re mining talc to make baby powder, you may end up with some asbestos in the mix.
How dangerous is asbestos?
Breathing asbestos can lead to scarring of the lungs. If you worked with asbestos, for example mining it, or building asbestos-lined ships in World War II, or working in building construction in the 1950's, you were at risk of this. Breathing asbestos is also strongly linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lungs).
Two women with cancer - one already deceased - lost lawsuits against talcum powder makers recently after a judge determined that they hadn't proved the powder caused their cancer. So does the stuff cause cancer or doesn't it? Turns out that's a hard question to answer.
Talcum powder is a different story, as we discussed before. The science is somewhere between mixed and inconclusive. A jury recently awarded 4.7 billion dollars to 22 women and their families who say they were harmed by talcum powder, but Popular Science correctly points out that convincing a jury is not the same thing as establishing a scientific fact. Baby powder containing talc may be harmful, but we still don’t know for sure.
If I have used baby powder, how much should I worry?
You and your baby are probably fine. Slate has a good breakdown of what we know about the risks. There was never very much asbestos in baby powder, even while Johnson & Johnson was covering up their findings of small traces of it. There’s also no evidence (yet) that there is any asbestos in baby powder sold today.
Your baby powder also may not have contained talc at all. When people became aware of the risks, a lot of brands switched to a talc-free formulation based on corn starch. Check the label.
Should I stop using baby powder?
This is an easy one! Yes. The one exception: if you use it on your own skin and really enjoy the feeling, enough to be comfortable with a small possible cancer risk, then keep on keepin’ on. For the rest of us, there’s really no point.
Baby powder was originally supposed to absorb wetness in a baby’s diaper, and manufacturers still sell it as a thing that makes a baby’s skin feel smooth and that imparts a pleasant scent to the diaper-changing experience. That’s great for marketing copy, but what does the baby actually get out of the experience?
Some powder on its butt, which does basically nothing
A minor hazard to its lungs, if it ever gets into the baby powder container. Which, being a baby, it eventually will.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against using talcum powder because it’s just not good to breathe in, even aside from the potential cancer risk. The kid could (will) find the container and shake it everywhere and breathe it in; plus creating a cloud of baby powder every time you change the kid is not doing anybody any favours.
What do you use instead? Hello, grandparents and great-grandparents, who I assume are the only people who have read this far. Parents in the year 2018 use this fantastic stuff called diaper cream. I swear by maximum strength Desitin when diaper rash gets bad, or their regular strength product for everyday use. A+D and Boudreaux’s Butt Paste are also popular brands. Switch to the cream, and you won’t have to worry about what’s in your baby powder at all.