What is benzene, the substance in acne creams that can cause cancer?

There is not a safe level of benzene that can exist in any skin care product, over the counter or prescription

Benzene, a known carcinogen, continues to raise alarm as it’s found in everyday products. Independent testing lab Valisure has detected its presence in acne treatments from popular brands like Clinique and Clearasil. This adds to recent discoveries of benzene contamination in sunscreens, hand sanitizers, and dry shampoos.

Valisure, based in New Haven, Connecticut, filed a petition with the FDA requesting the recall of affected acne products. Many contain the active ingredient benzoyl peroxide. Some of these products showed benzene levels up to nine times higher than FDA guidelines. The tests spanned different acne treatment forms: creams, lotions, gels, and washes, available over-the-counter or with a prescription.

Valisure’s findings: which brands show high levels of benzene

A 2.5% benzoyl peroxide cream from Proactiv contained 1,761 parts per million of benzene. Products by Target and Clinique also showed concerning levels. Acne’s status as the most common skin condition in the US increases the potential impact.

Valisure frequently collaborates with healthcare systems on product research, emphasizing the need for industry quality control. According to David Light, Valisure President, benzene occurs as benzoyl peroxide breaks down – a known risk.

“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 sanitizers and other consumer products.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”, he said.

What is benzene?

  • A common industrial chemical: Benzene is widely used in the production of plastics, rubber, dyes, and some detergents. It’s also a natural component of crude oil and gasoline.
  • Appearance and smell: It’s a clear, colorless liquid with a sweet, gasoline-like odor.
  • A known carcinogen: Long-term exposure, especially at high levels, is strongly linked to the development of serious blood-related cancers, including leukemia. It disrupts the normal production of blood cells in the body.

“There is not a safe level of benzene that can exist in any skin care product, over the counter or prescription. The current data on BPO degrading into high levels is extremely concerning given its prominent use in skin care, and this study should serve as another wake-up call for improved manufacturing and quality control of consumer healthcare products”: Christopher Bunick, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Dermatology at Yale University.

FDA recognizes the serious danger of benzene and lists it as a “Class 1 solvent” that “should not be employed in the manufacture of drug substances, excipients, and drug products because of their unacceptable toxicity. However, if their use is unavoidable to produce a drug product with a significant therapeutic advance, then their levels should be restricted,” and benzene is restricted to 2 ppm for these particular circumstances.

In December 2023, FDA took significant action through new guidance to tackle benzene contamination that was first identified by Valisure’s March 2021 FDA Citizen Petition detecting benzene in hand sanitizers, followed by a variety of consumer products including, sunscreens, antiperspirants, and dry shampoos. In the new guidance, the FDA urged manufacturers to reformulate various drug products containing “carbomer” gelling agents, which, as Valisure’s Hand Sanitizer Petition pointed out, pose a high risk of benzene contamination.

Why is it in acne creams?

Not intentional: Benzene is NOT added deliberately to acne creams. It forms as a byproduct when benzoyl peroxide, a common acne-fighting ingredient, degrades over time. This degradation is influenced by factors like storage conditions (heat, light) and other ingredients in the product.

Cancer Risk from Acne Creams

  • Low but not zero: The amount of benzene in most acne creams is relatively small. Therefore, the risk of developing cancer from their use is considered low. However, any exposure to a carcinogen raises some concern, especially for those already at higher risk.
  • Importance of research: Studies like those done by Valisure are important. They help us understand potential risks and guide manufacturers towards safer formulations.

ALSO READ. Cancer-causing substance found in Clinique and Clearasil products


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