After asbestos was found in makeup sold by Claire's, new legislation proposes clearer labeling of talc-based products made for kids

By Sarah Bradley
Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock

March 22, 2019

After the recent discovery of asbestos fibers in three makeup products sold by the retailer Claire's, a new bill has been introduced into legislation that would require more extensive labeling of makeup products marketed to children.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the bill—put forth by Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan on Monday--would require companies to either prove that their cosmetic products are free of asbestos or, if they could not, include a warning label on the packaging notifying consumers of the potential risk of asbestos exposure.

The proposed legislation comes after the FDA found traces of tremolite asbestos in three talc-based cosmetic products sold by Claire's stores: eye shadow, compact powder, and contour palette. Claire's disputed the findings, claiming that the fibers were "mischaracterized" as asbestos, but the FDA says the results were provided by two separate labs that came to the same conclusion. Either way, Claire's has pulled the products from its shelves.

Though only three specific products were implicated in the recent FDA survey of Claire's makeup, EWG's senior vice president for government affairs Scott Faber says that thousands of products used by consumers every day could be made with talc that contains traces of asbestos.

The World Health Organization has classified asbestos as a substance known to be carcinogenic to humans. It's often found in products containing talc because asbestos forms within the same rock that talc is mined from; as a result, asbestos can contaminate talc products. Ingesting or inhaling asbestos—especially over a prolonged period of time--can cause serious or fatal health problems, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer that occurs in the lining of the chest and abdomen. The FDA states there is no safe level of asbestos exposure for either adults or kids.

So what does this mean for your kids, particularly if they were using the Claire's makeup products containing asbestos fibers? Probably not much at this point, since the side effects of asbestos exposure normally don't cause health problems until many years later (sometimes it may even take decades). And unfortunately, there's no easy way to screen patients for asbestos exposure, which means there's no reason to rush your child to his or her pediatrician—they won't be able to perform a simple blood test or physical examination to determine exposure.

Still, it's understandable if you're worried: part of a parent's job is to protect their child's short-term and long-term health. Thankfully, there's good news on that front; according to Miami, Florida-based pediatrician Gary Kramer, M.D., even if your child was using one of the now-recalled makeup products from Claire's, "occasional, intermittent exposure" doesn't pose a huge risk.

"When it comes to assessing the health risks related to asbestos, length of exposure and frequency of exposure are more important factors to consider," he explains.

In other words, try not to stress too much if your child was an infrequent user of one of the contaminated products. But you should definitely throw it away, along with any other questionable products, to prevent any future exposure.

As far as the new bill proposal goes, Kramer says it may be one of the best ways to combat our ongoing exposure to asbestos, which often happens without our knowledge. Kramer explains that this lack of awareness actually poses one of the biggest asbestos-related threats to kids—and that legislating for a higher level of consumer savviness to limit our overall exposure is a crucial step toward keeping our kids healthier.

"There's a trickle-down effect of children being exposed not only in structures, like in older buildings or schools, but also by ingesting contaminated soil at a playground, or by coming into contact with people carrying it on their clothing," he says, which means exposure can really accumulate over time. "We need tighter regulation to eliminate the known presence of asbestos in products children are playing with and applying to their bodies."

Beyond supporting the legislation, Kramer says parents can also educate themselves about the unexpected places where asbestos might be lurking. Because the FDA can't regulate cosmetic products sold to consumers (and it could be a very long time before asbestos is removed completely from our everyday products), it's up to parents to know the potential sources of exposure.

"People have a lot of information at their fingertips now, and parents need to be extremely vigilant about what kids are getting their hands on," he says. This includes not just makeup, but things like cheaply-made toys handed out at birthday parties and the face painting products used at carnivals and festivals, many of which may contain talc-based ingredients.

"It's not a lot different from what parents do at the end of the evening on Halloween when they look at what candy their kids have gotten," Kramer adds. "Children don't know the risks [in their daily lives], so we need to be their advocates."

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