Why is cancer-causing benzene widespread in personal care products?

Benzene is a sweet-smelling, petroleum-derived toxic chemical classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a known human carcinogen – and now it’s being detected in many personal care products.

There is no safe level of human exposure to benzene.

Valisure, an independent laboratory, has detected the cancer-causing chemical in tests of  sunscreens, hand sanitizers, antiperspirant and deodorant, antifungal treatments, and spray shampoos and conditioners. The contamination has led to product recalls from major manufacturers, including Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. Though FDA did not issue a voluntary recall, CVS also removed two of its brand label sunscreens from store shelves.

Products recalled by companies over benzene contamination

To find out whether a specific product or product lot is affected by the recall, consult the FDA or company website.

Companies don’t add benzene to products as an ingredient. Why it’s being found in these consumer products remains a mystery.

The highest detections of benzene have been in aerosol spray products. FDA scientists hypothesize that contamination may come from inactive petroleum-derived ingredients, such as carbomers, a thickening agent, or isobutane, a spray propellant.

The benzene could also come from ethanol produced without adequate purity control.

Whatever the reason, when you use a product with benzene, your health may be at risk.

What are the health risks of benzene exposures?

In July, scientists working in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research found that exposure to benzene from contaminated sunscreens could harm health.

Benzene exposure is linked to a decreased number of red blood cell levels and an increased risk of leukemia. A toxicity assessment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown benzene can harm the central nervous system and may affect reproductive organs.

To limit exposures, the FDA should immediately require product testing for benzene. Consumers shouldn’t be exposed to this cancer-causing chemical from products they use every day.

Companies are not legally required to test for contaminants like benzene in personal care products. But ensuring products remain free from carcinogens should be a priority. The public should not have to rely on tests by independent labs to find problems with products on the market.

To reduce inhalation risk and minimize benzene exposure consumers can avoid aerosol-based cosmetics. EWG continues to recommend that consumers avoid using spray sunscreen to minimize risk and because spray products may not provide uniform sun protection. Due to respiratory concerns and strict standards for public health, the EWG VERIFIED® cosmetics program does not allow aerosol products.

Shoppers can also visit the Skin Deep® database and download EWG’s Healthy Living app to get ratings and safety information for sunscreens and other personal care products. 

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