Benzene, a Carcinogen, Found in Batches of Deodorants: Here's What You Need to Know
If your favorite antiperspirant or body spray has gone missing from store shelves, this may be why.
Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced in late November that it was voluntarily yanking all lots of certain Old Spice and Secret antiperspirant and powder sprays from shelves due to the detection of benzene, a known human carcinogen. The 18 affected products sold in the US carry expiration dates through September 2023. The company also pulled eight Old Spice and Secret products sold in Canada.
P&G's action comes on the heels of a citizen's petition filed with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the independent laboratory Valisure. As described in the petition, the New Haven, Connecticut-based lab detected benzene in 59 batches of antiperspirants and deodorant body sprays across 20 brands. The affected batches included brands from several manufacturers, including P&G, Unilever, Thriving Brands LLC, and others.
Valisure's findings are based on a test sample of 108 unique batches of body sprays across 30 different brands from multiple manufacturers.
"We at Valisure applaud Procter & Gamble for its quick attention to and action on our findings published in our FDA Citizen Petition on benzene contamination in body sprays," Valisure CEO and founder David Light said in a statement to Health. "We hope regulators and manufacturers continue to take further action on body sprays and other products affected by carcinogenic contamination so that consumers do not need to worry about exposure to unnecessary risk."
The FDA typically forbids the use of benzene in making products because it has "unacceptable toxicity." But the agency temporarily OK'd the use of benzene up to two parts per million during the height of the pandemic for the making of liquid hand sanitizers.
Valisure's lab testing detected benzene in a slew of popular spray deodorants, including Sure, Secret, Old Spice, Tag, Suave, and Right Guard. (You can see the full list of impacted products, starting on page 12 of the citizen's petition.) Twenty-four batches of products across eight different brands contained benzene concentrations of two parts per million or higher.
While P&G acted on its own accord, manufacturers of the other impacted sprays have not recalled their products. Representatives for Suave, Tag, and Sure did not immediately respond to Health's request for comment.
While the FDA has acknowledged receipt of the citizen petition, it has not recalled the other products identified by Valisure.
All of this raises a lot of questions about benzene: how can it turn up in antiperspirant spray, and how concerned you should be if you used one of these products? Here's what you need to know.
What is benzene?
Benzene is a chemical that's colorless or light yellow at room temperature, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It has a sweet smell and is highly flammable.
Benzene evaporates quickly into the air and dissolves slightly in water (although it will float on top). The chemical is formed from natural processes like volcanoes and forest fires and it's a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke, the CDC says.
Benzene is widely used in the US and can be used to make other chemicals that make plastics, resins, and nylon and synthetic fibers. It's also used to make some types of lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides.
Why is benzene bad for you?
Benzene keeps your cells from working correctly, the CDC explains. It can keep bone marrow from producing enough red blood cells, causing anemia. It can also damage your immune system by changing the levels of antibodies in your blood, leading to a loss of your white blood cells.
In certain circumstances, benzene can produce immediate symptoms. "Exposure to high levels of benzene at once can cause nausea, vomiting, weakness, and nervous system problems," Jamie Alan, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Health.
Over the long term (i.e. a year or more), benzene can lead to side effects like excessive bleeding and an increased risk of infection, per the CDC. Benzene has also been linked to leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
Benzene is also classified by the World Health Organization as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means that there is strong evidence linking it to DNA damage and other changes that cause cancer in humans.
OK, but how did benzene end up in deodorant sprays?
It's not entirely clear, but Light says it may be due to "quality problems" that started in the raw materials that were used to make the sprays. "These and other issues identified by Valisure strongly underscore the importance of independent testing and its need to be better integrated into an increasingly complex and vulnerable global supply chain," he says.
This isn't the first time something like this has happened. Benzene has been detected in the past in aerosolized personal care products like sunscreen, Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells Health. "Benzene is not used as an ingredient in the aerosol product, but rather develops as a byproduct in the bottle after formulation," he says.
How concerned should you be about benzene in your antiperspirant spray?
Again, if you have any of these products at home, it's really a good idea to stop using them.
P&G encouraged people who might have the impacted lots of its recalled brands to stop using the sprays and contact customer service about a refund.
"Benzene is a naturally occurring, man-made substance that's involved in many plastics and other important materials," board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, MD, founding director of Eternal Dermatology Aesthetics and professor of dermatology at Howard University and George Washington University, tells Health. "However, it should not be in antiperspirants, cosmetics, and other skincare products."
Benzene "can penetrate the skin easily, and excess application to the skin can cause redness, irritation, and sores," Dr. Rodney says, adding that "even vapors that can come from these products could cause dermatitis over time."
Alan agrees that it's "possible" benzene could get absorbed through your skin if it's in your spray deodorant. "I would place this in the category of long-term exposure to small amounts, which would raise the chance of the possibility of cancer," she says.
But Dr. Zeichner says you shouldn't panic, saying that it's "unlikely" that spraying one can of deodorant that contains minimal amounts of benzene on your body will be harmful. However, there is a risk of breathing in the deodorant after it's sprayed, and that could irritate your lungs, Alan says.
Keep in mind, though, that "benzene contamination often happens on a batch basis, so it's hard to say if your favorite product has it or not," Dr. Rodney says. Meaning, it's possible that one can of spray deodorant you bought contained small amounts of benzene, but the next didn't.
Valisure underscored that point in its news release, noting that "not all body spray products contain benzene and that uncontaminated products are available and can continue to be used without the potential risk from benzene."
"For anyone concerned, I advise sticking to a stick or roll-on antiperspirant instead of an aerosol," Dr. Zeichner says.
Overall, Alan urges people not to panic. "Throw what you have out and get a new product," she says. "While exposure to benzene may raise your risk, it's a small increase in the lifetime risk."
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