Carcinogenic chemical benzene found in hundreds of US personal care products

Independent tests have found that hundreds of popular personal care products in the United States are contaminated with benzene, a potent carcinogenic chemical that has led several major brands to voluntarily recall dozens of products in recent months.

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Last year, the laboratory, Valisure, discovered benzene in hand sanitizers, sunscreens, deodorants, dry shampoos, conditioners, antiperspirants, deodorants, body sprays and anti-fungal treatments. The contamination has most often been detected in aerosol or spray products, some at levels that the Food and Drug Administration characterized as “life-threatening”.

The results suggest that benzene contamination is widespread and likely is in several products that have not yet been tested, said David Light, Valisures CEO.

“Benzene really should not be there at all,” he said. “What we see is a fundamental problem in the manufacture of a lot of consumer products.” To date, Valisure has tested 662 items and found the chemical in 180, or about 27%, of the products.

Procter & Gamble, Bayer, CVS and Johnson & Johnson have issued voluntary recalls for widespread brands including Brut, Sure, Pantene, Herbal Essences, Old Spice, Secret, Tinactin, Lotrimin, Coppertone, Neutrogena and Aveeno. Among the recalled hand spirits brands are Art Naturals, Best Brands and Natural Wunderz.

Light pointed to “decades of research” that has not found any safe levels of benzene exposure because it is so toxic at very low levels. The petroleum-based chemical “causes cancer,” especially leukemia and in blood-forming organs, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wrote. The toxin has also been shown to damage the central nervous system and reproductive organs.

The United States banned the use of benzene as an ingredient nearly 45 years ago, and it is “something unique because it is quite well-established for being incredibly toxic – it has been known for decades for over a century,” said David Andrews, a senior public researcher. health advocate for the environmental working group.

Lawyers targeted the Food and Drug Administration for not doing more to protect the public. In a December statement, the agency said it was investigating the situation, conducting its own tests and urging companies to recall contaminated products.

Although the agency lacks the authority to order recalls and may be limited in its pre-market authority to require testing, advocates urge the FDA to clarify an existing gasoline limit, set new exposure limits, and perform additional testing of products on store shelves to ensure they are secure, instead of leaving it to independent laboratories. The FDA’s system “really lacks independent review” because it relies on companies reporting themselves, Light said.

Federal rules allow benzene to be used in the manufacture of personal care products, and it can end up in goods even if it is not listed as an ingredient. Benzene can also be added in emergencies, such as the pandemic, or if it provides “significant therapeutic” benefits. In such scenarios, the FDA limit is two parts per million, but some products that did not provide any therapeutic benefit were found with levels as high as 21 ppm.

In a statement, the FDA wrote that it “continues to monitor the problem” and cooperates with companies in recalling contaminated products. Although the Agency does not have exposure limits, it informs companies that “solvents such as benzene should not be used in the manufacture of medicinal products, excipients or medicinal products due to their unacceptable toxicity.”

Some companies have taken advantage of the confusing rules and gaps to downplay the problem. Johnson & Johnson, which recalled sunscreens in July, said that “daily exposure to benzene in these aerosol sunscreen products at the levels detected in our test is not expected to cause adverse health consequences.”

The company’s statement was published by the FDA on its website, though the agency’s scientists found in a July analysis obtained by Consumer Reports that benzene – contaminated sunscreen poses a “life-threatening risk”.

“Does the FDA serve these companies or the public?” asked Andrews.

How benzene lands in products is still a bit of a mystery in some cases. Companies claim they do not add it to their formulas, and the FDA theorized that it is likely to be in contaminated thickeners, preservatives, spray propellant, or ethanol.

In many cases, Valisure found that one batch of one product would contain benzene, while another of the same product would not. It highlights the complexity and lack of overview of the global supply chains that produce personal care products. A propellant like butane, refined very early in the manufacturing process, “touches dozens of different hands” on its journey from raw material to sunscreen on a shelf, but no one discovered benzene, Light said.

Valisure most often found benzene in body sprays, which include deodorants and antiperspirants: Nearly half of the 108 products from 30 different brands contained it. The highest levels were found in Sure, Old Spice, Secret, Equate, Right Guard, Tag and Brut.

Valisure tested nearly 300 sunscreens or after-sun products and found detectable levels in 77, or about 27%, of the samples. Among those with the highest levels were Neutrogena, CVS, Sun Bum, Raw Elements and Banana Boat. Although spray-on sunscreen was found to be most often contaminated, the chemical was also found in lotions and gels.

Valisure’s hand disinfection analysis found the highest levels of benzene in small brands that emerged as demand for the product increased. Out of 260 samples from 168 brands sold on Amazon, at pharmacies and at checkout stores like Target, 44, or about 17%, had detectable levels of benzene. Products from well-known names such as Purell and Suave did not contain the chemical.

In its December statement, TPC Hot Acquisition, which owns Brut and Sure, wrote: “No reports of adverse events related to this recall have been reported to date. This voluntary recall is carried out out of an abundance of caution.”

However, it is almost impossible to prove that a specific chemical has caused an illness, and Andrews noted that benzene has a latency period of 10 to 15 years. “The time lag between exposure and cancer can be a long period,” he said.

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