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Is there asbestos in your makeup? Why women with cancer are suing big beauty brands | Health & wellbeing

Is there asbestos in your makeup? Why women with cancer are suing big beauty brands | Health & wellbeing
Is there asbestos in your makeup? Why women with cancer are suing big beauty brands | Health & wellbeing

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Mention asbestos and disease, and most people’s thoughts turn to old, unstable floor tiles or insulation in homes or offices, or jobs in shipbuilding or construction – the kind of heavy industries that employ men in hi-vis jackets and hard hats. One place we don’t tend to think of it is in the beauty industry; rarely do we consider nude eye-shadow palettes or peachy pink blushers as health hazards.

Yet scores of British women are taking leading cosmetic companies to court in the United States, claiming that they contracted mesothelioma – a particularly nasty, treatable, but incurable cancer of the lining of the lung, heart or stomach – through their use of beauty products.

The ingredient they hold responsible is talcum powder, which is ubiquitous in makeup. You’ll find it in bronzer, blusher, eye shadow, foundation, mascara, lipstick and even dry shampoo, because it does an excellent job in absorbing moisture and preventing caking. Talc is a mineral that is mined from underground clay deposits – but it can also often have veins of asbestos present in it.

Almost all of the big brands use talc in their cosmetics, and they reject any suggestion that they may be tainted. The Estée Lauder Companies group, which includes Clinique and Bobbi Brown as well as Estée Lauder itself, said: “We only use talc that is tested and certified as asbestos free. Additionally, all our ingredients undergo a comprehensive safety review and evaluation, and our products are safe for their intended use.”

Certainly, the majority of people who have been using these products for years haven’t developed mesothelioma, partly because asbestos isn’t distributed equally in talc (which makes it especially hard to test for), but also because we’ve been fortunate that asbestos fibres haven’t lodged in our pleura (which lines our lungs) or peritoneum (the membrane lining the abdomen).

Hannah Fletcher wasn’t so lucky. In 2016, she was working for British Airways in a high-flying communications job. She started feeling exceptionally tired and began suffering from stomach pains. She went to the doctor and was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos, and was told that she likely had a year to live. She was 42 and had two children, aged four and 10.

Fortunately, she has outlasted that prognosis. In the years since, Fletcher has had almost every treatment imaginable: in a 12-hour operation, her spleen, gall bladder and appendix were removed, along with her womb; she has had immunotherapy and chemotherapy; and recently had a clot on the lung. It wasn’t until every other potential source of exposure had been ruled out that her solicitor sent a tissue sample from her peritoneum for a biopsy. She came back with an extraordinary finding: it contained fibres of asbestos in talc.

The culprits were her mother’s loose face powder, makeup and talc (which Fletcher had played with as a child), and her own later use of foundation and eye shadow. With the help of her solicitor, Harminder Bains of Leigh Day, she took legal action in the US – partly because this is where most of the big cosmetic brands are based, but also because it’s difficult to claim compensation for mesothelioma in the UK unless it’s been caused by your employment.

She sued. “I wanted justice and to raise awareness,” she says. “Some of the things I’ve had to do as a mother, like write letters to my children before the operation because there was a high possibility that I wouldn’t survive. I’ve missed so many family occasions because I’ve just been too ill to attend, and I feel like my children’s childhood was stolen from them.”

Fletcher agreed to a substantial financial settlement out of court in May 2023 and her case has opened the door for dozens of other British women with mesothelioma to take legal action in the US against cosmetic companies. Some cases have settled, but many more are going through the courts. Fletcher is one of the few people prepared to talk publicly about her condition and case.

She can’t tell me what the settlement was, nor which companies she sued – those were the conditions of the nondisclosure agreements she was required to sign. But it wasn’t difficult to discover that they were Clinique, Estée Lauder and Avon, as there are court documents giving her leave to sue these companies that are in the public domain.

In 2020, Jade Jenkins – another woman from the UK who is suing cosmetics companies in the US – was in her mid-30s when she started having stomach pains that felt like heartburn. A scan revealed peritoneal mesothelioma.

“When I was told I had one-to-two years to live, I was shocked and panicked. I wear makeup every day, and to find out that the thing I put on my face which I’ve been buying since I was 12 years old caused this was awful. I felt sick and guilty, and so did my mum because we both wore the makeup and could have exposed each other.”

There have been periodic scares about cosmetic talc, but the world’s attention around the issue increased in 2018 with an avalanche of lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson (J&J), alleging that the company’s Baby Powder and other talc products were contaminated by asbestos (though most claimed they had caused ovarian cancer rather than mesothelioma). A Reuters investigation into the company’s internal documents found that J&J had known for decades that asbestos had lurked in its Baby Powder. It is currently facing around 54,000 lawsuits related to talc in Baby Powder, but maintains that its products do not contain asbestos and do not cause cancer.

Cancer Research UK says that there’s no good evidence that using talcum powder causes cancer, although again it refers to ovarian cancer, not mesothelioma, and calls for bigger and better studies. The UK’s Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association says that: “Any allegation that talc as used in cosmetic products as sold in the UK is potentially unsafe would be a very serious matter. We believe that there is no basis for such an allegation … All ingredients within cosmetic products must be safe and ingredients are regularly reviewed by independent scientists. If an ingredient were found to be unsafe when used in a cosmetic product, it would be banned.” Its consumer information website notes that: “The two most recent studies investigating whether cosmetic talc could cause mesothelioma … found no causal link.”

It is true that studies have found that cosmetic talc is not causally related to the development of mesothelioma. However, one of the main problems with claims about the safety of cosmetic talc is the method used to test it for asbestos. The most sensitive – and therefore most reliable – method is transmission electron microscopy, but the most common method used by the cosmetics industry is X-ray diffraction. This is less sensitive – it can’t detect levels beneath 0.5%, but it allows the industry to claim that its talc contains “no detectable asbestos”. As one peer-reviewed paper documenting the talc industry’s insidious influence over regulation and public health policy observes: “‘No detectable asbestos’ is not the same as ‘asbestos-free’.”

Fletcher’s settlement opened the door for dozens of other British women to take legal action. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Its authors, who include British medical anthropologist Tess Bird and David Egilman, an American clinical professor of family medicine and epidemiologist, argue that the very notion of “cosmetic talc” (as distinct from “industrial talc”) is a “marketing construct”: “The TM&MCs [talc mining and manufacturing companies] have long been aware that historical and current tests for asbestos in talc reveal that talc is not and never was asbestos-free … ‘no detectable asbestos’ essentially allowed for asbestos to be present in levels that were undetectable based on the test method.”

A 2020 study analysis by geologist and mineralogist Sean Fitzgerald (et al) using transmission electron microscopy found asbestos in three out of 21 powder-based cosmetic products bought in the US. A 2020 paper by pathologist Theresa Emory (et al) examined the cases of 75 people with malignant mesothelioma, whose only known exposure to asbestos was repeated exposure to cosmetic talcum powders, concluding that cosmetic talc may have been a cause.

The most significant recent research has been conducted by occupational medicine doctor Jacqueline Moline (et al). Her 2023 paper presented the cases of 166 people with mesothelioma, all of whom had cosmetic talc exposure. A 2020 study by Moline (et al) had described 33 cases of malignant mesothelioma among individuals with no known asbestos exposure other than cosmetic talcum powder. After doctors employed by the talc companies challenged the data in this earlier paper, Moline re-reviewed all the cases, noted that one individual had an additional source of potential asbestos exposure and issued a correction to that effect.

Nevertheless, J&J has gone after Moline and Emory, alleging fraudulent research that disparaged its reputation. Last September, Moline asked the court to dismiss the case against her, arguing that it was an attempt to “intimidate” and silence scientific experts. Her lawyers argued that instead of litigation, J&J should publish its own studies and let the scientific community decide (the usual way of settling scientific disagreements). Moline’s motion to dismiss is pending. J&J declined to comment.

The lawsuit is only the latest in a long history of attempts, often ad hominem, to discredit or undermine the scientists and lawyers who cast doubt on cosmetic talc’s safety. The most persistent line of attack is that they’re motivated by money – the fees they get for representing or testifying on behalf of plaintiffs suing for compensation. Of course, the experts who appear for the cosmetics and talc companies are also paid and, as Egilman points out, using transmission electron microscopy to test cosmetic talc for asbestos “is expensive work to do. Somebody has to pay you to do it,” he says.

For the alleged victims, the idea that their cases are all about the money is insulting. In 2021, at the age of 34, Tennessee-based Sarah Plant was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, 10 months after the birth of her third child, when “I stopped singing to my kids ’cause I couldn’t breathe”. After surgery leading to sepsis, chemotherapy and radiotherapy (which took her away from her children for 22 weeks), she’s suing talc suppliers, cosmetic companies and J&J, “to get it off the shelves … If my children lose their mother, if my husband loses me, you try telling them it’s about money.” J&J again declined to comment.

Harminder Bains, Hannah Fletcher’s solicitor, has personal experience of the devastation caused by mesothelioma: her father died of it in 2000. “I deal with every case like it was my dad’s case,” she says. Sylvia Jackson, 69, who was diagnosed last year with peritoneal mesothelioma (“I’d never heard of it – it takes you weeks to learn to say it”), is suing because “we don’t have private insurance. A successful claim would allow me access to treatments which can cost tens of thousands [of pounds] and aren’t available on the NHS – that’s my main hope”.

Perhaps most shocking is the fact that it doesn’t need to be this way. Another ingredient exists that performs the same function in cosmetics as talc but is incontestably safe: corn starch. Some cosmetic companies have started using it to replace talc.

Just not in my products. Cosmetics companies are required by law to list their ingredients, so it wasn’t hard to start checking out the contents of my makeup bag. I gasped when I looked up my fragrance-free, much-admired Clinique eye shadow. The first ingredient? Talc. Scanning the ingredients of my Rimmel mascara, I gasped again: buried in there but clearly listed was talc. I have binned them both.

Then there are the “clean beauty” brands. These vegan, cruelty-free brands are talc-free, surely? It seems not. Dr Hauschka uses talc in its cosmetics, but told me they “only use raw materials of the highest quality … the absence of asbestos has always been confirmed by our suppliers and … we regularly commission independent laboratories for testing … As a cosmetic ingredient on the skin, talc is a proven and safe component of Dr Hauschka products.”

Living Nature similarly says that it uses some of the purest talc on Earth”; while Victoria Beckham Beauty research and development “only work with manufacturers that source the mineral from companies who properly mine the ore and test and certify that their talc is free from asbestos fibres”, using optical and electron microscopy, and X-ray diffraction.

There are a number of big-name, talc-free brands, such as Bare Minerals, Glossier and Ilia, as well as smaller ones like Zoeva, Zao and Manesi 7. While Bobbi Brown’s eponymous company uses talc, with her new brand, Jones Road, the makeup artist was “insistent on pivoting to clean beauty, and one aspect of being a clean beauty company is ensuring there is no talc in the formulas”.

My daughters and I now only use talc-free products. The whole subject, though, raises the question of risk. Sarah Plant has strong views on the subject. “If anyone was asked, ‘Do you wanna wear this makeup, if there’s a chance that, if you breathe it in, some day you’re going to have a disease that could end your life within nine months?’, people aren’t gonna choose that. We make those choices based on our understanding and knowledge.” Plant was an English teacher; “My job now is literally staying alive. This is where I landed because of the information I had when making those decisions.”

In 1924, Nellie Kershaw – a Lancashire textile worker – was the first person to have asbestos cited as a cause of death on her death certificate. How can it be that, 100 years on, asbestos has penetrated into our bathrooms and bedrooms? All the lawyers, doctors and people with mesothelioma I talked to want to see cosmetic talc banned; we need a mass national or international campaign to make this happen. In the meantime, we’ll have to learn to scan cosmetics labels in the way many of us now do with food labels. It would be a start.

Some names have been changed

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