Benzene, a Carcinogen, in Deodorants: Here’s What You Need To Know

In 2021, the Food and Drug Administration took action, and manufacturers issued voluntary recalls.

When benzene was found in some deodorant brands, your favorite antiperspirant or body spray may have disappeared from store shelves for a while.

In November 2021, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and other manufacturers voluntarily recalled several antiperspirants and powder sprays from shelves over concerns about benzene. The recall affected products in the United States and Canada.

The Food and Drug Administration classifies antiperspirants as drug products and deodorants as cosmetics. Deodorants that are also antiperspirants are considered both drugs and cosmetics. Those deodorants must comply with the Food and Drug Administration's regulations for both.

Also, the agency advises that manufacturers issue voluntary recalls of products with a certain amount of benzene, a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent).

All of this raises many questions about benzene: How can it turn up in antiperspirant spray, and how concerned should you be about these products? Here's what you need to know.

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Food and Drug Administration Recalled Several Deodorants in 2021

P&G's and other manufacturers' actions to voluntarily recall products came on the heels of a citizen's petition filed with the Food and Drug Administration by the independent laboratory Valisure. 

As described in the petition, the New Haven, Conn.-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 were based on a test sample of 108 unique batches of body sprays across 30 different brands—including Sure, Secret, Old Spice, Tag, Suave, and Right Guard—from multiple manufacturers. Twenty-four batches of products across eight brands contained benzene concentrations of two parts per million or higher.

"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," David Light, Valisure CEO and founder, 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."

What Is Benzene?

Benzene is a chemical that's colorless or light yellow at room temperature. 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.

In the United States, benzene is widely used to make other chemicals that make plastics, resins, nylon, and synthetic fibers. It's also used to make some lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides.

Why Is Benzene Bad for You?

Benzene keeps your cells from working correctly. The chemical can keep bone marrow from producing enough red blood cells, causing anemia. Benzene can also damage your immune system by changing the 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 in East Lansing, Mich., told Health.

Over the long term (a year or more), benzene can lead to side effects like excessive bleeding and an increased risk of infection. Benzene is also linked to leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer.

The World Health Organization also classifies benzene as a Group 1 carcinogen. So, there is strong evidence linking the chemical to DNA damage and other changes that cause cancer in humans.

The Food and Drug Administration states that drug manufacturers should not use benzene during the making of their products. And if manufacturers cannot avoid benzene exposure, they should limit the chemical to two parts per million.

Also, the Food and Drug Administration advises that drug manufacturers test their products for benzene contamination if there's an exposure risk. Manufacturers should not sell products with benzene levels higher than two parts per million. If those products are already available to consumers, the Food and Drug Administration advises voluntarily recalling them.

In addition to the Food and Drug Administration, other organizations that deem benzene a carcinogen include:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • World Health Organization (WHO)
  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

How Did Benzene End up in Deodorant Sprays?

It's unclear, but it might be due to "quality problems" from the raw materials supplied to the manufacturers used to create the products, said Light.

"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," added Light.

Valisure said the benzene could also come from ingredients that push the spray products onto the skin, known as propellants. Those ingredients, which could evaporate and release benzene in the air, include:

  • Hydrofluorocarbon 152a
  • Butane
  • Isobutane
  • Propane
  • Alcohol 

But the recall in 2021 wasn't the first time a benzene-related incident happened. High benzene levels were previously detected in other drug and cosmetic personal care products like sunscreen and after-sun care products, hand sanitizer, and in 2022, dry shampoo.

"Benzene is not used as an ingredient in the aerosol product but rather develops as a byproduct in the bottle after formulation," Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told Health

How Concerned Should You Be About Benzene in Your Antiperspirant Spray?

"Benzene is a naturally occurring, man-made substance that's involved in many plastics and other important materials," Ife J. Rodney, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founding director of Eternal Dermatology Aesthetics, told 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," added Dr. Rodney. "Even vapors that can come from these products could cause dermatitis over time."

Alan agreed 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," said Alan.

But Dr. Zeichner said you shouldn't panic, adding it's "unlikely" that spraying one can of deodorant containing minimal benzene on your body be harmful. But there's a risk of breathing in the deodorant while and after spraying it, which could irritate your lungs, added Alan.

And keep in mind: "Benzene contamination often happens on a batch basis, so it's hard to say if your favorite product has it or not," said Dr. Rodney. 

So, suppose one can of spray deodorant you bought contained small amounts of benzene. It's possible that the following can you bought contained a different amount.

Valisure underscored that point in its 2021 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," recommended Dr. Zeichner.

Overall, Alan urged people not to panic. 

"Throw what you have out and get a new product," said Alan. "While exposure to benzene may raise your risk, it's a small increase in the lifetime risk."

Aerosol Deodorant Alternatives

The fact that benzene was found in some deodorant sprays doesn't mean you have to swear off deodorant altogether. But you do have options for alternatives. 

For starters, you can switch from aerosol to stick or roll-on deodorant. Next, you can look for products made from natural ingredients that don't contain aluminum or parabens, which are chemicals used in small amounts as preservatives.

Finally, you can try going all-natural with one or more of the following options:

  • Witch hazel
  • Baking soda or cornstarch
  • Lemon juice
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Coconut oil
  • Essential oils

However, there's no guarantee they'll work as effectively at reducing body odor.

A Quick Review

If you stockpiled deodorant back in 2021, it's a good idea to get rid of those.

Avoiding benzene exposure from deodorant or other products is essential for long-term health. Still, there's no need to panic over the incidence of benzene in deodorant sprays.

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  1. Procter & Gamble. P&G issues voluntary recall of specific Old Spice and Secret aerosol spray antiperspirants and Old Spice Below Deck aerosol spray products due to detection of benzene.

  2. Food and Drug Administration. Are all "personal care products" regulated as cosmetics?.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. Is it a cosmetic, a drug, or both? (Or is it soap?).

  4. Food and Drug Administration. FDA alerts drug manufacturers to the risk of benzene contamination in certain drugs.

  5. Food and Drug Administration. Are all "personal care products" regulated as cosmetics?.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about benzene.

  7. Humans IWG on the E of CR to. 6. Evaluation and Rationale. International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2018.

  8. Valisure. Valisure detects high levels of known human carcinogen benzene in several sunscreen products and requests FDA actions.

  9. Valisure. Valisure detects known human carcinogen benzene in several hand sanitizer products and requests FDA actions.

  10. Valisure. Valisure detects high levels of benzene in several dry shampoo products and requests FDA actions.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parabens factsheet.

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