Johnson & Johnson announced Tuesday that it is permanently discontinuing its talc-based Johnson's Baby Powder in the U.S. and Canada after years of lawsuits and a recall last year.
A statement from the company reads, in part: "Johnson & Johnson remains steadfastly confident in the safety of talc-based Johnson's Baby Powder. Decades of scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of our product. We will continue to vigorously defend the product, its safety, and the unfounded allegations against it and the Company in the courtroom. All verdicts against the Company that have been through the appeals process have been overturned."
This comes after a voluntary U.S. recall in October 2019 fo a single lot of Johnson's Baby Powder due to low levels of asbestos contamination. In a statement posted to its website, the company explained the recall was in "response to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) test indicating the presence of sub-trace levels of chrysotile asbestos contamination (no greater than 0.00002%) in samples from a single bottle purchased from an online retailer" and stressed that the recall was only a precaution.
But the voluntary recall came after years of allegations about asbestos contamination in Johnson & Johnson's talcum powder-based baby powder, and the controversy was a factor in the shifting consumer habits Johnson & Johnson referenced when announcing its discontinuation of talc-based baby powder in the U.S. and Canada.
In a statement to Motherly, a spokesperson for the company explains: "We have made the decision to discontinue talc-based Johnson's Baby Powder in the U.S. and Canada as part of a broader portfolio assessment related to COVID-19 prioritization. Demand for talc-based Johnson's Baby Powder has been declining in North America due in large part to changes in consumer habits and fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising. We remain steadfastly confident in the safety of talc-based Johnson's Baby Powder. Decades of independent scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of our product."
As Bloomberg reported in July 2019, the Justice Department and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission were investigating Johnson & Johnson due to concerns about alleged asbestos contamination in its baby powder. This came after numerous lawsuits, including a case that saw Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay almost $4.7 billion to 22 women who sued, alleging baby powder caused their ovarian cancer. In July 2018, St. Louis jury ruled the women were right, but what does The American Academy of Pediatrics say about baby powder?
It was classified "a hazard" before many of today's parents were even born
The organization has actually been recommending against baby powder for years, but not due to cancer risks, but inhalation risks. Way back in 1981, the AAP declared baby powder "a hazard," issuing a report pointing out the frequency of babies aspirating the powder, which can be dangerous and even fatal in the most severe cases.
That warning didn't stop all parents from using the powder though, as its continued presence on store shelves to this day indicates. In 1998, Dr. Hugh MacDonald, then the director of neonatology at Santa Monica Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Fetus and Newborn, told the Los Angeles Times "Most pediatricians recommend that it not be used," adding that the consensus at the time was that "anybody using talcum powder be aware that it could cause inhalation of the talc, resulting in a pneumonic reaction."
A 2015 update to the AAP's Healthy Children website suggests the organization was even very recently still more concerned about the risk of aspiration than cancer risks like those alleged in the lawsuit. It suggests that parents who choose to use baby powder "pour it out carefully and keep the powder away from baby's face [as] published reports indicate that talc or cornstarch in baby powder can injure a baby's lungs."
In a 2017 interview with USA Today, Dr. David Soma, a pediatrician with the Mayo Clinic Children's Hospital, explained that baby powder use had decreased a lot over the previous five to eight years, but he didn't believe it was going to disappear from baby shower gift baskets any time soon.
"There are a lot of things that are used out of a matter of tradition, or the fact it seems to work for specific children," he said. "I'm not sure if it will get phased out or not, until we know more about the details of other powders and creams and what works best for skin conditions—I think it will stick around for a while."
Johnson's talc-based baby powder is now being discontinued in the U.S. but corn starch varieties of baby powder are also available and not linked to increased cancer risks.
The company states: "Both types of Johnson's Baby Powder – talc-based and cornstarch-based – will continue to be sold in other markets around the world where there is significantly higher consumer demand for the product. Importantly, Johnson & Johnson remains fully committed to its Johnson's Baby brand."
[A version of this post was originally published July 13, 2018. It has been updated.]