Hand Sanitizers With Benzene: What To Know

Be aware of the ingredients your hand sanitizers have.

In 2020, the demand for hand sanitizer became very high following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for curbing the spread of COVID-19.

But Connecticut-based online pharmacy and product testing company, Valisure, conducted tests on hand sanitizers. They found that there were high levels of benzene, which is known to cause cancer in humans, in several hand sanitizer brands.

David Light, the founder, and CEO of Valisure told Health that the company regularly analyzes thousands of drug and consumer products that are sold through their online pharmacy. The pharmacy only offers products that their in-house lab has independently batch-certified.

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Getty Images / Design by Jo Imperio

"We recently added benzene to our list of compounds that we test for and soon started detecting it in hand sanitizers," explained Light. "As it quickly became clear this was a problem broadly affecting the overall hand sanitizer market in the US, we decided to conduct a market sweep and then file a Citizen Petition with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)."

More About Benzene

Benzene is a flammable chemical that smells sweet. It can be colorless or light yellow when sitting at room temperature. Benzene does not take long to evaporate and can float on top of water. Other things to know about benzene:

  • It's one of the most-used chemicals in the United States.
  • Benzene is found in nature (e.g., in volcanoes or forest fires) and can also be formed by humans.
  • When products like clothing or plastic items (e.g., toys) are exposed to benzene in the air, those products can outgas, or release, benzene for days afterward.

According to Valisure's petition, they "tested and detected high levels of benzene and other contaminants in specific batches of hand sanitizer products containing active pharmaceutical ingredients of ethanol and isopropanol."

Here's what you need to know about hand sanitizers with benzene.

What Did the Valisure Study Find?

Valisure analyzed 260 bottles from 168 brands. They found 17% of the samples contained detectable levels of benzene. And 21 bottles (8% of the samples) contained levels of benzene that were above the limit the FDA set for liquid hand sanitizers at 2 parts per million (ppm).

The FDA set this limit to alleviate the supply shortage during the pandemic. Still, it was "shocking and frustrating to be detecting any levels of benzene in such a broadly used consumer product," said Light.

Light was also "very surprised" by the findings. "As a scientist, consumer, and father of five children who all use hand sanitizers, I was shocked to see benzene present in so many products at all, let alone at many times above the FDA's interim limit during the COVID-19 public health emergency," said Light.

Further, Light was surprised to learn that the FDA emergency guidance on hand sanitizer and its interim limit of 2 parts per million for benzene only applies to liquid hand sanitizers and not to gels.

"That means the benzene limit on gels is ostensibly zero, since the FDA's non-emergency guidance on drug products like hand sanitizers clearly states that benzene 'should not be employed in the manufacture of drug substances, excipients, and drug products because of [its] unacceptable toxicity,'" explained Light.

Additionally, the findings highlighted what Light called an "important regulatory gap that needs to be filled." The FDA doesn't provide a "daily exposure limit" of benzene as it does for probable cancer-causing chemicals, like N-Nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), that have caused many drug recalls—it only establishes a "concentration limit."

More About NDMA

NDMA is a natural and manmade chemical that is a yellow liquid at room temperature. It can be found in manufacturing plants for different products. Other than the fact that it is a potential cancer-causing chemical and can cause liver damage at high levels, not much else is known about how NDMA can affect humans.

This is potentially harmful, said Light. Unlike drug products that can be physically small tablets or capsules, people could be using much higher volumes of hand sanitizer. "Even with a low concentration, an individual's total exposure to benzene could be concerningly high," said Light.

Why Is Benzene Harmful?

Benzene is a problem because this chemical messes with how well cells, like red blood cells and white blood cells, work in the body. This means a person might have problems with bleeding a lot or infections. In addition, it becomes more harmful based on:

  • The amount of benzene you are exposed to
  • How you were exposed to it
  • How long you are exposed to it
  • Your age
  • Any preexisting medical conditions you have (e.g., heart conditions)

If you are exposed to benzene for a long time (i.e., at least a year or more), it affects your blood the most. Other than causing issues with red and white blood cells, benzene may result in irregular periods and smaller ovary size.

Benzene is also a cancer-causing chemical. "Benzene's toxicity in humans has been well known in the scientific community for over 120 years. It is arguably one of the most, if not most, known chemicals that can cause cancer in humans even at trace levels," said Light.

Sanitizers With High Levels of Benzene

Bottles of hand sanitizer from these 15 brands were identified in Valisure's report as having high levels of benzene:

  • Artnaturals
  • Scentsational Soaps & Candles Inc.
  • Huangjisoo
  • TrueWash
  • The Crème Shop
  • Star Wars Mandalorian
  • Body Prescriptions
  • Born Basic
  • Beauty Concepts
  • PureLogic
  • Miami CarryOn
  • Natural Wunderz
  • clean-protect-sanitize
  • Puretize
  • Hand Clean 100

Some of these hand sanitizers have since been recalled as of November 2022, such as batches that were produced under these names or brands:

  • Artnaturals
  • Scentsational Soaps & Candles
  • Star Wars Mandalorian
  • Born Basic

Of note, other products have been known to contain benzene as well, such as aerosol products like sunscreens or antiperspirants.

However, you can determine what other FDA-regulated products have been recalled on the FDA's website. The FDA also has a specific searchable list regarding public notices about recalls, market withdrawals, and safety alerts.

What Should Be In Your Hand Sanitizer

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides a simple recommended recipe for hand sanitizer. An effective hand sanitizer requires only three main ingredients:

  • Isopropyl alcohol (also known as 2-propanol)
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Glycerol

Note that ethyl alcohol may be used instead of isopropyl alcohol. However, no other types of alcohol, including methanol and 1-propanol, are acceptable in hand sanitizer because they can be toxic to humans.

Hand sanitizers are classified as over-the-counter drugs regulated by FDA. So those that meet the FDA's drug review conditions will include a "drug facts" label. The labels describe the ingredients in the product. The FDA also has a list of products you shouldn't use, which you can use to check whether your hand sanitizer brand is safe.

A Quick Review

Some hand sanitizers were found to have benzene as an ingredient. Benzene is a chemical that has been associated with health conditions like cancer and immune system issues.

Even though the hand sanitizers with benzene were identified and some were recalled, it's still important to be aware of what your hand sanitizer contains. Additionally, the FDA has resources to help you determine if the hand sanitizer you use or want to use is safe.

But if you're still concerned about your hand sanitizer, remember it's actually secondary to good old-fashioned hand washing.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Valisure. Valisure detects benzene in hand sanitizers.

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

  3. Budnik LT, Austel N, Gadau S, et al. Experimental outgassing of toxic chemicals to simulate the characteristics of hazards tainting globally shipped products. Meador JP, ed. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(5):e0177363. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0177363

  4. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. ToxFAQs for n-Nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA).

  5. US Food and Drug Administration. FDA updates on hand sanitizers consumers should not use.

  6. US Food and Drug Administration. Frequently asked questions on benzene contamination in drugs.

  7. US Food and Drug Administration. Recalls, market withdrawals, and safety alerts.

  8. US Food and Drug Administration. Additional information about recalls.

  9. World Health Organization. Guide to local production: WHO-recommended handrub formulations.

  10. US Food and Drug Administration. Is your hand sanitizer on FDA's list of products you should not use?

  11. US Food and Drug Administration. Q&A for consumers: Hand sanitizers and COVID-19.

  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Handwashing in communities: clean hands save lives.

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