What is benzene? Answering questions about dry shampoo recalls.

What is benzene? Answering questions about dry shampoo recalls.


Unilever has recalled more than a dozen aerosol dry shampoos because, the company said, they may contain “elevated levels” of benzene, a naturally occurring chemical that can be carcinogenic at high levels over prolonged exposure.

The recall, announced last week by the consumer goods giant, is the latest related to benzene contamination rates in various aerosol products, including some sunscreens and deodorants.

The Washington Post spoke with aerosol and cosmetics experts about the recall and the health risks associated with continued exposure to benzene. Here’s what they said.

Which dry shampoos is Unilever recalling?

Unilever voluntarily recalled aerosol dry shampoos manufactured before October 2021 under the Bed Head, Dove, Nexxus, Suave, Rockaholic and TRESemme brands in the United States. The company said in a statement that it was not aware of any “adverse events” related to the recalled products and that an “independent health risk assessment” found that daily exposure to benzene in the recalled products is not expected to cause health problems. problems.

“Unilever US is recalling these products out of an abundance of caution,” the statement said. “Consumers should stop using the affected aerosol dry shampoo products.”

The company offers refunds on certain products, which can be found here.

Benzene is a colorless or light yellow liquid with a sweet smell highly flammable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency says it is one of the 20 most popular chemicals used in the United States. It is a “building block” for other chemicals and materials, according to the American Chemistry Council.

Benzene is commonly found in crude oil, according to the CDC. Companies use benzene to make plastics, resins, nylons, and synthetic fibers, as well as some lubricants, rubber, paints, detergents, drugs, and pesticides.

Experts say that we are exposed to benzene in the air we breathe every day, especially when we fill up our vehicles at a gas station. Benzene is also found in certain cigarettes, detergents, adhesives and paints.

How does benzene end up in your dry shampoo?

Unilever said the propellant in dry shampoo spray cans is a source of benzene and is working with suppliers to resolve the issue.

Chris Cappa, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, said butane, a petroleum product, is a common fuel in spray cans. If the butane refining process is “not very good,” then you can end up with gas that contains other components from the crude oil, such as benzene. “This benzene is most likely coming from that gas,” Capa said.

“If you want to limit potential exposure to things like benzene from contaminated spray cans, then you can make different choices about the products you use,” he said.

Cappa said he is less concerned about using spray sunscreen outside versus aerosolized dry shampoo inside because the benzene will dissolve in the wider atmosphere and limit the risk of high-level benzene exposure.

Marisa Plescia, a cosmetic chemist in Minneapolis, said dry shampoos are “really basic” products, with a combination of powdered starch, silica and fragrance that absorb the oil in your hair. No company intentionally puts benzene in their products. “It’s contamination,” Plescia said.

Is benzene harmful to humans?

Inhaling, ingesting or otherwise absorbing benzene over long periods of time can lead to serious health problems, including cancers such as leukemia and other blood disorders, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Benzene can slow the amount of red blood cells produced by the bone marrow, leading to anemia, the CDC says. It can also damage the body’s immune system by changing the level of antibodies in the blood. People who inhale high levels of benzene can become drowsy, dizzy and confused, and experience headaches, irregular heartbeats and tremors.

High levels of benzene can lead to vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness and convulsions. Direct exposure of the eyes, skin or lungs to benzene can damage tissue and lead to irritation. Some women exposed to high levels of benzene had irregular periods and reduced ovarian size. “It is not known whether exposure to benzene affects the developing fetus in pregnant women or fertility in men,” the CDC says.

Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist and adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati, said benzene is “certainly dangerous,” but we’re exposed to the chemical every day and contamination levels in these beauty products tend to be in the tens of parts. per million. “It’s a trace contaminant,” Dobos said. “Cosmetics companies employ toxicologists. They do extensive research to make sure their products are safe.”

If you’re going to use an aerosol product, Dobos said, do so in a well-ventilated area with an open window.

What other products contain benzene?

Aerosolized versions of conditioners, deodorants, anti-fungal deodorants and sunscreens revoked in the last two years due to possible benzene contamination.

Procter & Gamble last year recalled more than 30 aerosolized hair care products, including dry shampoos and conditioners, warning that they contained high levels of trace benzene. The company also recalled more than a dozen Old Spice and Secret aerosol deodorants.

Homer Swei, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, said the supply chain for the propellant, butane or propane fuel for spray cans, must be affected to have these high levels of benzene in any of the aerosol products.

“You’re seeing more and more of these companies start to evaluate and explore. They will probably see more of these things,” Swei said. “I don’t think this is the end.”

Benzene is a carcinogen, he said, but the duration or level of exposure needed to cause these health problems is not known. Benzene comes from several sources, so it’s hard to “account for all these different types of exposure,” Swei said. People must “avoid using these aerosols until the industry resolves these supply chain issues,” he said.

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