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Aerosol hair products tainted by benzene may still be on store shelves

A new round of testing has detected surprisingly high levels of the cancer-causing chemical in dry shampoo sprays, suggesting recent recalls haven’t gone far enough

A photo illustration of a hand spraying an aerosol can. The background is an x that is half pink, and half red, with the red half appearing to come out of the aerosol can.
Aerosol cans have been implicated in the benzene contamination of a number of popular consumer products. (Photo illustration by Chelsea Conrad/The Washington Post/iStock)

Aerosolized beauty products are popular and convenient, allowing us to spray our hair, faces and bodies with fine mists of deodorant, sunscreen and dry shampoo.

But in the past 18 months, several major consumer products companies, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, have announced at least 10 recalls of well-known aerosol brands.

The reason: The products contained elevated amounts of benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer and compromise our immune system.

It’s not clear how widespread the problem is, and the major companies involved have refused to answer questions or provide additional details. The affected aerosol products include some of the world’s biggest brand names including certain lots of Neutrogena, Aveeno, Banana Boat and Coppertone sunscreens; Sure, Brut, Suave, Secret and Old Spice deodorants; Dove, Nexxus, Suave, TRESemmé and Bed Head dry shampoos, and Tinactin and Odor Eaters foot sprays.

In October, the news got worse. Valisure, an independent lab in New Haven, Conn., published a new analysis testing 148 batches of dry shampoo products from 34 different brands, and found that 70 percent contained benzene. The highest level of benzene detected was 340 parts per million in 10 seconds of spray. By comparison the Food and Drug Administration has said that the acceptable level of benzene in a drug is two parts per million.

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A timeline of benzene recalls
May 2021 Valisure tells FDA it has detected benzene in dozens of sun care products
July 2021 Johnson & Johnson recalls certain lots of Neutrogena and Aveeno spray sunscreens.
Sept. 2021 Biersdorf recalls some Pure & Simple Baby, Sport Mineral and Coppertone sprays.
Oct. 2021 Bayer recalls certain Tinactin and Lotrimin antifungal sprays
Nov. 2021 Recall of some Odor-Eaters and Stink Stoppers foot sprays.
Nov. 2021 Procter & Gamble recalls some lots of Old Spice and Secret antiperspirants.
Dec. 2021 P&G recalls some Waterless, Pantene, Aussie, Herbal Essences, Old Spice, and Hair Food dry shampoo sprays
Feb. 2022 HRB Brands recalls some Sure and Brut sprays
Mar. 2022 Unilever recalls some lots of Suave antiperspirants.
July 2022 Edgewell Personal Care recalls some Banana Boat Hair & Scalp sunscreens
Oct. 2022 Unilever recalls some lots of Dove, Nexxus, Suave, TRESemmé, Rockaholic and Bed Head dry shampoos.

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A problem with the propellant

The issue appears to be related mostly to butane-powered propellants that create pressure inside an aerosol can, which is what ultimately allows us to spray a fine mist of the product when we press the nozzle. Butane is a petroleum-based propellant, and if it isn’t refined well, there’s a chance that the end product could contain traces of benzene, said Chris Cappa, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis.

“Aerosol sprays appear to be one of the highest-risk categories for benzene contamination in consumer products,” said David Light, the chief executive of Valisure, who also warned in May 2021 of benzene contamination in sunscreen products. “We don’t want to scare people into never using an aerosol can ever again, but it is a real risk.”

In a statement announcing its recall of various dry shampoo products in October, Unilever said the company confirmed the propellant “as the source” of the benzene contamination. Johnson & Johnson also said the contamination was related to the propellant, and said it has adopted new practices “to prevent such an occurrence in the future,” a spokesman said.

A spokesperson for Procter & Gamble said the company has “nothing to share” about the recalls.

The news that many of the favorite products we spray on our bodies might contain a cancer-causing contaminant has left some consumers concerned, prompting conversations on social media and online searches about benzene.

When Kyla Moore, 22, who lives in Alberta, Canada, and works in customer relations, heard about the recall, she discovered her can of Dove coconut dry shampoo was on the list of potentially tainted products. She threw it in the trash a few days after Unilever’s announcement, and said she doesn’t plan to buy it again after switching to a new shampoo she likes better.

The brands with the highest levels of benzene in the newest round of tests include Not Your Mother’s, Sun Bum, Paul Mitchell, dp Hue and Sebastian, none of which have been recalled. In a statement, Not Your Mother’s said the report "is inconsistent with the data provided by our suppliers and the rigorous ongoing testing to ensure the safety and integrity of our products. These tests show no traceable amounts of benzene.”

Trace amounts of benzene can add up

Benzene is used to make plastics, detergents, dyes and pesticides. Breathing or otherwise absorbing benzene over time can lead to leukemia, anemia and other blood disorders, according to the FDA.

Much of the research on the harmful effects of benzene focuses on occupational hazards. One study published in 1977 found workers in the U.S. rubber industry were at least five times more likely to develop leukemia.

We can be exposed to benzene in many ways. Rubber collars were added to gas pump nozzles to protect us from the benzene in gas fumes. We inhale benzene when we smoke tobacco and expose our families to benzene through second hand smoke. In a study published earlier this month, researchers found benzene leaking from gas stoves in California.

“Everyone is exposed to benzene,” said Stephen M. Rappaport, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. “It’s just a question of how much.”

The World Health Organization has said “there’s no safe level” of exposure to benzene in the air we breathe.

Some experts say the concern with any amount of benzene in consumer products, like dry shampoo or deodorant, is that we’re often spraying these cans in enclosed spaces like small bathrooms where there’s not a lot of air flow and a higher possibility of someone inhaling the known carcinogen.

Last week, Stella Krause, a 20-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, learned about the recall on Twitter. Instead of giving up her Dove dry shampoo, she started spraying it on her hair outside. Krause said she already thought breathing in dry shampoo spray wasn’t good for her lungs.

“For carcinogens, it’s not like there’s some safe level,” said Deborah Bennett, a professor of public health at the University of California at Davis. “Any additional exposure you have from consumer products is going to increase your risk.”

Contamination in the supply chain?

Homer Swei, a senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, said he believes the supply chain of propellants for these different companies must have been affected to lead to such a wide range of recalls.

Swei said the good news is “the process is working” and companies are trying to understand the cause. The bad news is there appears to be problems with more than one supplier.

“It hit everybody, it seems, at the same time, which is very strange,” said Swei, who worked at Johnson & Johnson for nearly twenty years. “They all have different supply chains.”

The string of aerosol can recalls started after Valisure, the independent laboratory based in New Haven, Conn., published two separate studies detecting traces of benzene in dozens of different deodorant and sunscreen brands.

Alternatives to aerosols

This isn’t the first time questions have been raised over the propellant used in our spray cans. For years, aerosol cans were propelled by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). But in the 1970s, researchers found CFCs are partially responsible for destroying the Earth’s ozone layer, and companies stopped using them and eventually switched to other aerosol technologies, including butane-based propellants.

But not all spray cans rely on petroleum-based propellants. Cans of whipped cream are often powered by nitrous oxide. Other spray cans use a “bag-on-valve” technology that separates the propellant from the product inside the can, said Marisa Plescia, a cosmetic chemist based in Minneapolis.

To find out if your product contains a butane-powered propellant, just check the label. The chemicals used in the propellant should be listed in the ingredients or inactive ingredients box. Look for any ingredients that end in “-ane,” such as propane, butane and isobutane, Plescia said.

Clues that a product may use an alternate technology such as the bag-on-valve system are claims that the product doesn’t contain flammable ingredients or has a “continuous spray.”

Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist and professor at the University of Cincinnati, said if companies decide to change aerosol technologies, it will take time to adjust formulations or develop new products with a different spraying system.

“Product development timelines are often a year, two years or more to account for testing and proving shelf life stability,” Dobos said. “While the levels of benzene found in the products from the Unilever recall are not expected to cause adverse health consequences, the best advice I can give to consumers who are concerned is to eliminate aerosol usage.”

Swei said he would also tell his friends to avoid using these aerosol products “until the industry can fix these problems in the supply chain.”

“While there’s some uncertainty, it’s not good for you,” Swei said. “The lower the better for known carcinogens. But, what that level is? We still don’t know.”

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