Should you be worried about asbestos in your cosmetics?

According to a story in Happi the cosmetic retailer Claire’s has had to recall a number of its cosmetic products because they are thought to be contaminated with asbestos. It seems that a worker at a law firm that specializes in asbestos litigation sent a sample of her child’s makeup kit to be tested. They found asbestos.

Subsequent testing by Claire’s using an independent lab, found there wasn’t any asbestos.

Asbestos dangers

Before commenting further it would be helpful to understand what is asbestos and why would in be found in a cosmetic.

Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring minerals linked to various human diseases (who still thinks natural is more safe?) It has been useful for insulation, fire protection and heat resistance and was used since ancient times. Its use would have continued except in the early 20th century people discovered that asbestos scarred lung tissue. Later in the 20th century various cancers related to asbestos exposure were discovered. Its use was heavily restricted in the 1970’s and was ultimately banned from use in the EU in 2005.

The way asbestos might end up in a cosmetic is as a contaminant in talc. Talc is a natural mineral too used as a filler or pigment extender in powdered cosmetics. While there are no proven safety issues with talc, in nature, sources of talc can be found with asbestos mixed in. Since the 1970’s the use of talc contaminated with asbestos has been banned in the US.

Asbestos in cosmetics

So, asbestos contaminated talc has been banned from cosmetics and it shouldn’t be found in any makeup products from Claire’s or anyone else.

But a law firm says they found asbestos in this company’s cosmetics. Who do we believe? The law firm who found asbestos in a sample or the cosmetic company who found none?

I’m more inclined to believe the company for a few reasons.

1. Terrible for business: There are so many options for buying makeup that any company who uses asbestos in their products would quickly be out of business. There are law firms who specifically search for situations which would allow them to sue companies. This would not be something you could get away with for long. And if it was found to be true, no consumer would buy your cosmetics again. It’s a terrible business idea.

2. Talc specifications: If you look at the specifications from any talc supplier to the cosmetic industry, there is a specific test done to detect the presence of asbestos in the product. Unless the company is playing fast and loose with their ingredient specifications, asbestos should not end up in the product.

3. No benefit: There really is no benefit to the company to use talc that might contain asbestos. Maybe the contaminated version of the talc might cost a few pennies per pound less but the cost savings they would get could not make much difference at all to the company. And the downside of doing this are immense.

What happened?

It’s unlikely we’ll know for sure what happened in this situation. My guess is that it was probably an error at the lab in which the original samples were tested and shown to contain asbestos. Errors can easily happen in labs which is why it is best to have multiple labs conduct testing. In this case, when when multiple independent labs did the testing, they couldn’t replicate the original findings of asbestos. It would be nice to have other independent labs test it (not company funded) but I doubt there would be any finding of asbestos.

Claire’s did the right thing recalling the products. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to cosmetic product safety. We’ll see if this has a negative impact on their future cosmetic product sales.

And if you’re formulating cosmetic products, this story shows that you better have some plan in place of how you might respond in the event that a law firm tests your product and finds some dangerous substance in it.

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