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Is your acne treatment safe? Cancer-causing chemical found in Proactiv, Clearasil and more

A known human carcinogen has been detected in a number of popular acne treatments still available in stores, a new lab report has found.

The study, which was conducted by Connecticut-based independent laboratory Valisure, reportedly discovered “high levels of benzene” in acne products containing benzoyl peroxide. Valisure has filed a petition with the US Food and Drug Administration, calling on the FDA to “recall and suspend sales of products containing benzoyl peroxide” in the US.

According to the report published on Wednesday 6 March, “unacceptably high levels of benzene” were a result of the decomposition of benzoyl peroxide when stored at higher temperatures. Researchers also found levels of the chemical as much as 800 times more than the regulatory limit, and suggested that benzene can leak out of some product packages to pose a potential inhalation risk.

What is benzene?

Benzene is a chemical that can occur naturally in the environment, such as in crude oil or gasoline, states the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It can be used to manufacture plastics, lubricants, dyes and detergents. Indoor and outdoor air also contains low levels of benzene due to tobacco smoke, motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions and or household paints.

The major effect of long-term exposure to benzene is on the blood, which can lead to a decrease in red blood cells - or anemia - after a year or more of exposure to high benzene levels. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that benzene can also cause blood-related cancers, such as leukemia.

What acne products contain benzene?

According to Valisure, high levels of benzene were detected in several popular acne treatments from brands including Estee Lauder’s Clinique, Target’s Up & Up, and Reckitt Benckiser-owned Clearasil. Benzene was also found in Proactiv, PanOxyl, Walgreens’ acne soap bar, and Walmart’s Equate Beauty acne cream.

In a statement to Reuters, Estée Lauder said that Clinique uses benzoyl peroxide in one product, which “is safe for use as intended”. Meanwhile, the parent company for Clearasil told CBS News that it is “confident that all Clearasil products, when used and stored as directed on their labels, are safe”.

“The safety and quality of our products is our top priority and we work closely with regulators around the world to ensure our products are safe and effective for their intended use,” they added.

Are acne products containing benzoyl peroxide still safe to use?

Benzoyl peroxide is a commonly used topical to treat acne. In fact, benzoyl peroxide has been used extensively in dermatology and has been approved for the treatment of acne for more than 60 years. Typically, acne products containing benzoyl peroxide have been sold in the forms of soap, gels, creams, or lotions.

However, experts recommend using benzoyl peroxide as directed by a dermatologist or directions on the label. There are also several acne treatments without benzoyl peroxide available on the market, such as those with salicylic acid.

Benzene has been detected in other products tested by Valisure

In November 2022, the independent laboratory caused concern after it had found “potentially elevated levels” of benzene in Unilever shampoo aerosol products. Among 148 batches from 34 different brands of dry shampoo products, 70 per cent of samples tested showed “quantifiable” levels of benzene.

“This discovery of benzoyl peroxide’s fundamental instability and formation of benzene is substantially different than Valisure’s previous findings of benzene in sunscreens, hand sanitisers and other consumer products,” said David Light, Valisure’s co-founder and president, in a statement.

“The benzene we found in sunscreens and other consumer products were impurities that came from contaminated ingredients; however, the benzene in benzoyl peroxide products is coming from the benzoyl peroxide itself, sometimes at hundreds of times the conditional FDA limit. This means the problem broadly affects benzoyl peroxide products, both prescription and over-the-counter, and necessitates urgent action.”

In October 2022, Unilever announced a recall of 19 dry shampoo aerosol products from brands such as Dove, Suave, and TRESemmé. After conducting an internal investigation, the company identified the propellant used in its aerosol cans as the source for the high levels of benzene. “Unilever has worked with its propellant suppliers to address this issue,” the company said, adding that US retailers had been notified to remove the 19 recalled products from their shelves.

However, Unilever said that an independent health hazard evaluation found that daily exposure to the benzene in its recalled dry shampoo products “would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences.”

The Independent has contacted Walmart, Walgreens, Target, Proactiv, and PanOxyl for comment.