Which investigation is right? When independent analysis reported that traces of asbestos were found in the make-up powder on sale at teenage accessories chain, Claire’s back in December 2017, the US brand ordered its own independent research, which stated that no asbestos was found in their products. So-called “mystery” exposures to asbestos continue to be increasingly reported in which victims lose their lives to mesothelioma or suffer debilitating asbestosis diseases up to 30 to 40 years later.

Following their own lab tests, two Dutch health and safety authorities also claim to have found asbestos in the powder of two types of make-up. The amount of asbestos is 2 – 5 per cent in a face powder and 0.1 – 2 per cent in a contouring powder. The test inspectors claim ‘there is a risk to health’ and as a result have ordered the products to be removed from the shelves at all 32 Dutch branches.

Part of the same highly toxic fibre group

The type of asbestos found in 17 products first tested was tremolite, part of the same highly toxic fibre group as brown (amosite) and blue (crocidolite) asbestos banned in the UK more than thirty years ago. This fibre type was banned first because medical research discovered the rigid needle-like fibres are most resistant to being broken down and expelled from the tissue linings. White asbestos contains curly fibres, which are less resistant to the immune system.

The independent US lab results found that there was between 61,538 and 153,846 fibres of asbestos per gram in the various products tested. By weight, tremolite can be detected at levels as low as 0.10 per cent in talcum powder. Up until the late 1970s and early 80s, asbestos fibres were not only used as insulation and fireproofing but also widely added as a low cost material strengthener and stabiliser in hundreds of industrial, household and cosmetic products, including talcum powder.

Asbestos fibres found in talcum powder are also thought to cause the development of ovarian cancers, urinary tract disorders, gynaecological tumours as well as mesothelioma. Previous research involving around 2,000 women found an increased risk of between 20 per cent and 30 per cent for ovarian cancer in women who used talcum powder. Tremolite is sometimes also found as a contaminant in white asbestos (chrysotile) as well as talcum powder.

Low intensity exposure to asbestos

In May 2011, HM Government Office for Science stated that it was “not possible to determine a threshold level”, below which, exposure to white asbestos could be considered safe for human health. Previously, European Asbestos Directives issued in 1998 and amended in 2003, 2004 and 2007, were focused upon “sporadic and low intensity exposure to asbestos” rather than simply measuring the extent of exposure and risk.

Asbestos is banned in 55 countries around the world but not in the US. However, asbestos continues to be traded and used in countries such as Russia, China and India. Reports of asbestos found in children’s crayons, brake pads and counterfeit cigarettes have come to light in recent years and there’s fears that a post-Brexit trade deal with the US could see further asbestos-containing products finding their way back into the UK.

The Accessories group originally recalled nine of their cosmetics products last December, after the first independent tests confirmed asbestos present in glitter makeup kit a mother had bought for her 6 year old daughter. The mother said she “felt compelled to investigate” when she checked the ingredients and saw that the “only information given was that the product was made in China”. Later that month, Claire’s announced that their own investigations showed that “cosmetics tested to date are asbestos-free.”

Lack of adequate protection

Claire’s have also claimed that the original independent test methods were “obsolete and unreliable”, and the organisation not certified to perform “the type of testing necessary for talc-based products.” The brand states they had conducted extensive testing and investigation in cooperation with relevant authorities and EU enforcement agencies, to demonstrate that Claire’s products are asbestos-free and comply with all relevant safety regulations.”

With retail outlets in more than 7,500 locations in 45 countries and around 17,000 employees, the group clearly needs to address the growing risk concerns. According to one spokesperson linked to TeenVogue, many young people were becoming aware of the issue, adding that as a result of minimal regulation in the cosmetics industry, there is a lack of adequate protection, which could potentially put young consumers at risk.

The latest Dutch results, which once again confirm the presence of asbestos can only add to the uncertainty over the safety of the make-up powder in the products tested.

The results of independent UK investigations have indicated that none of the products, which have been recalled for testing are listed on the retailer’s website.