Lab tests found carcinogenic asbestos in makeup for children

Glittery makeup is one of the products Claire’s has pulled.
Glittery makeup is one of the products Claire’s has pulled.
Image: Reuters/Max Rossi
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Asbestos is probably the last thing you worry about when buying your child glittery makeup, but more than one retailer has now had to pull products after lab testing found the carcinogen in them.

Claire’s, which sells accessories and makeup aimed at young girls, announced on Twitter this week that it would halt sales of a number of products. (The full list is here.) The move came after a Rhode Island mother, who works at a law firm specializing in asbestos litigation and was working on a separate case, had some of her daughter’s makeup tested. WPRI, a Providence, Rhode Island, station reported the story.

Claire’s, which has about 1,600 stores (pdf) in North America and more than twice that globally, hasn’t given its view of whether any of its products were contaminated with asbestos. To be cautious, it said it stopped sales of the items and announced today (Dec. 28) that it is having an independent lab run tests.

It’s not the first time

The lab that found the asbestos was the Scientific Analytical Institute (SAI) in Greensboro, North Carolina. Asbestos testing is one of its specialties, and it is accredited by several US states.

A few months ago, a Raleigh, North Carolina TV station enlisted SAI to test several makeup products aimed at children and teens, in order to see what wasn’t included on the ingredient list. In the “Just Shine Shimmer Powder” sold by US retailer Justice, the lab said it found asbestos as well as four heavy metals: barium, chromium, lead, and selenium.

Justice stopped sales of the makeup, though later said it found no asbestos after conducting its own tests. “A third party ISO-certified testing lab concluded there is no asbestos in our Just Shine Shimmer Powder product,” the company said in a statement. “Reports suggesting that the product contains asbestos are simply inaccurate.”

Sean Fitzgerald, director of research and analytical services at SAI, says that in the product testing that included the Justice shimmer powder some lots tested positive for asbestos but others didn’t. “With Claire’s, every time I tested I found asbestos if I looked hard enough,” he told Quartz. His testing included samples purchased from a number of states.

How does this even happen?

It’s understandable why parents would be concerned. ”There is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber,” according to the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When breathed in, the fibers remain in the lungs, where they can cause diseases such as mesothelioma or cancer years later.

So how does a dangerous material used in building and insulation end up in kids’ makeup?

Fitzgerald says he has no doubt that asbestos-contaminated talc is the culprit. Talc is widely used in makeup and personal care products to absorb moisture. It’s a mineral, and forms in the earth beside other minerals, including asbestos. The American Cancer Society also notes that talc in its natural form can contain asbestos.

“The most common type of asbestos that will contaminate talc is tremolite,” Fitzgerald explains. “There are other minerals present in the makeup kits that are kind of a fingerprint that tells me how the talc formed and why it’s contaminated with tremolite asbestos.”

The asbestos levels are low, he says, but even if just a fraction of one percent of the product contains asbestos, that can still mean millions of fibers tossed into the air and potentially breathed in any time a child uses the makeup. Fitzgerald and the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit focused on health and the environment, have been pushing for better regulation of personal products.

The safety of talc has recently been under scrutiny, too. Several women have filed cases against Johnson & Johnson, saying it failed to properly warn consumers of talc’s links to cancer, particularly ovarian cancer.

In August, a jury awarded one plaintiff in a case against J&J a total of $417 million in damages, though a judge later overturned the verdict. As of now, it’s not clear whether talc carries any cancer risk.