Whether it's the food we eat or the formulas we apply to our skin, we all seek products that—while beneficial to our beauty needs—are healthy, not harmful. With food, it's a little more clear. Naturally, a piece of fruit is more natural and better for you than a bag of chips. But with beauty, navigating what's healthy and what's harmful is not as simple. We've been warned of the dangers of parabens and phthalates, but there are tons of other ingredients in beauty products we apply to our faces every day. One ingredient that has been called into question is talc.
Upon visiting Cover FX in Los Angeles to learn more about what goes into the brand's popular formulations—including playing chemist and trying my hand at making some of my own products—I found out that the brand doesn't use talc in any of its powders. My knowledge of the mineral was limited at best, but I had read about its possible ties with cancer and concerns over whether its presence in cosmetics could be making people sick. So I followed up with Victor Casale, the co-founder and chief chemist of Cover FX, to hear why he chose to ditch the controversial ingredient—and what he said was not what I expected.
Below, learn more about talc in makeup, and see what beauty industry veteran Victor Casale and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Purvisha Patel have to say about the ingredient.
Meet the Expert
- Victor Casale is the co-founder and former chief chemist of Cover FX. He is now the co-founder and CEO of MOB Beauty.
- Dr. Purvisha Patel is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare.
Before even doing a deep dive into whether talc is harmful in cosmetics, Casale wanted to set a few things straight about makeup and safety. One of the biggest misconceptions surrounds the idea of natural products. "When you use the word 'natural,' it's all relative, and it's subjective," notes Casale. "What I like to say is that we should be talking about the degrees of naturalness."
When you use the word 'natural,' it's all relative, and it's subjective, notes Casale. What I like to say is that we should be talking about the degrees of naturalness.
Even so, as a chemist, Casale understands that even natural products can be harmful to the skin and health, while synthetics can be more effective and much safer. "People care about the naturalness of their makeup, but most of the medications they take are synthetic."
So instead of prioritizing natural ingredients, Casale considers each ingredient's actual effects on the skin and body to rank the safety of its use. "At Cover FX, what I do is look at the ingredients—I don't look at the degrees of naturalness," explains Casale. "I look for safety, toxicity, odor, effectiveness, stability, and sustainability of the sources." He underscores that the goal is to produce quality products that are safe for people. "It's a balance of using science, nature, and what technology is available."
What is Talc?
Talc is a natural mineral—the softest mineral on record—and is used in everything from paints to textiles to drugs to, you guessed it, cosmetics. "But in cosmetics, specifically, we look for suppliers that mine it in its purest form," explains Casale. The naturally occurring mineral is extracted from open-pit mines in the U.S. and around the world. "It's milled down very easily, and it's used as an expender in our repertoire." In other words, it's a dilutant that's paired with pigment for the desired effect. "If you take some of that pigment, and you put it on your hand, it's intense. You have to dilute it. You can't sell it that concentrated. Talc is the dilutant."
Dr. Purvisha Patel explains, "Talc is very water absorbent and has been used for centuries to help the skin in areas of moisture and to help prevent skin break down and inflammation." The powder is also well-known for its ability to absorb oil and reduce shine.
Casale, who also co-founded MAC, has been using talc since he started in the industry. "Thirty years ago, that's what everybody used," he says. When he was formulating MAC's Studio Fix powder foundation, still one of its best sellers, Casale used talc. "The problem with talc, as I learn more and more and have more experience with it, is that if you put talc on your hand by itself and rub it in, it never really disappears. You have a white, chalky stain on your hand." When Casale first started in the cosmetics industry, "people liked that dry powder look," he recalls. "Today it's natural glow—they want it to look natural, they don't want it to look covered up. You want your beauty to come through your makeup."
So when Casale reformulated everything in the Cover FX line five years ago, "I put my foot down and said we're not using talc. It's too chalky." Instead, Casale opted for ultra-fine mica. The mineral is similar to talc but is used to create the frost in your lipstick or eye shadow. When you break down mica, it breaks down flat—like a mirror—so, depending on the particle size, you can go from club glitter to frosty to illuminating to just glowy. "When you rub mica into your skin pure, it disappears," describes Casale. "So now, when I'm formulating, I can dilute the color, but it won't create a chalky finish on your skin. My decision [to ditch talc] wasn't made for safety concerns—that came later."
Mica is a naturally-occurring mineral that, when ground, produces mica powder. The powder gives off a pearly, sparkly sheen, which is why it's a popular ingredient in many highlighters and eyeshadows.
Is Talc Safe?
Talc started becoming controversial when Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $72 million in damages to the family of a woman who died from ovarian cancer after 35 years of using talcum powder for feminine hygiene. More cases are looming, yet there's no definitive answer as to whether talc can be harmful in cosmetics, and most brands continue to use the mineral to this day. According to the American Cancer Society, while talc is a danger for talc miners or other workers who come in contact with natural, asbestos-contaminated talc fibers, it has not been established as a concern for cosmetics.
The Drawbacks of Talc
Dr. Patel says most skin types can tolerate talc; however, those with sensitive skin can see some irritation when used in specific areas on their faces. "Those that may have irritation when it is used in the folds of skin are people who tend to have sensitive skin reactions and hive easily. The rubbing of the particles may cause increased irritation to them." He says that the main health issue when using talc is what happens when the powder is inhaled. "The concern with cosmetic talc in makeup and hygiene products is when it is inhaled, as it might cause respiratory problems and lung disease. It can also irritate the eyes."
The Final Takeaway
Casale has reformulated everything at Cover FX to be 100% free of talc. When Casale focuses on the safety of the ingredients in his formulations, he considers the toxicity. "I created a policy that we will not formulate any product that has a high toxicity," he says. He refers to the EWG Skin Database, which exists online and as an app, where dermatologists and toxicologists rate the toxicity of products on the market. With the exception of sunscreen and salicylic acid to treat acne, which are active ingredients that rank higher, everything Casale uses in his formulations is in the safe zone.
Before we wrap this story up, we want to share a few talc-free makeup options to keep in mind when it's time to replace an item in your makeup bag.
Here you have a palette that can define, highlight, add a pop of color, and even lock your product in without reaching for anything else.
This talc-free powder won't cake or dry out the skin thanks to the kiwi fruit water blended into the formula.
Oily skin beauties will love this oil-absorbing, pore-blurring formula. The setting powder helps mattify the skin while vitamins C, E, and F are meant to protect the skin from environmental stressors.
The key to touching up your makeup on the go is to blot, so you won't end up packing on too much powder. Blotting powder offers the best of both worlds. You'll knock off the shine and refresh your makeup without powder overload.
Looking for a talc-free pressed powder with buildable coverage and an inclusive shade range? You've met your match with this compact.
Casey R, Larkin TP. Ovarian cancer and "tainted talc": what treating physicians need to know. Mo Med. 2019;116(2):83-86.
American Cancer Society. Talcum powder and cancer. Updated February 4, 2020.