What is benzene? Answering questions about dry shampoo recall.


Unilever has released more than a dozen aerosol dry shampoos because the company says they may contain “high levels” of benzene, a naturally occurring chemical that can be carcinogenic with long-term exposure to high levels.

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

The Washington Post spoke to aerosol and cosmetologists 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 has issued a voluntary recall for aerosol dry shampoos manufactured before October 2021 in the US under the brands Bed Head, Dove, Nexxus, Suave, Rockaholic, and TRESemme. The company said in a statement that it has not learned of any “side effects” related to the products in the recall, and that an “independent health hazard assessment” has determined that daily exposure to benzene in the recalled products is not expected to cause health effects. problems.

“Unilever USA is very cautiously recalling these products,” the statement said. “Consumers should stop using affected aerosol dry shampoo products.”

The company offers refunds for certain products that can be found here.

Benzene is a colorless or light yellow liquid that smells sweet and is highly flammable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency says it’s one of the top 20 chemicals used in the United States. According to the American Chemistry Council, it is a “building block” for other chemicals and materials.

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

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

How does benzene get on your dry shampoo?

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

Butane, a petroleum product, is a common propellant in spray cans, said Chris Cappa, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis. If the butane refining process is “not very good”, then it may result in gas containing other components from crude oil such as benzene. “This gas is most likely where this benzene comes from,” Cappa said. Said.

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

Cappa said she was less worried about using a sunscreen spray can outside. an aerosolized dry shampoo, because benzene will dissolve in the wider atmosphere, limiting the risk of exposure to high levels of benzene.

Marisa Plescia, a Minneapolis-based cosmetic chemist, said dry shampoos are “really simple” products with a combination of powdered starches, silica, and fragrance to absorb oil from your hair. No company intentionally puts benzene in their products. “It’s a contamination,” Plescia said.

Is benzene harmful to humans?

According to the Food and Drug Administration, 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.

The CDC says that benzene can lead to anemia by slowing the amount of red blood cells produced by the bone marrow. It can also damage the body’s immune system by altering blood levels of antibodies. People who inhale high levels of benzene may become drowsy, dizzy, and confused, and may have headaches, irregular heartbeat, and tremors.

High levels of benzene can cause vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, and convulsions. Direct exposure of benzene to the eyes, skin, or lungs can damage tissue and cause irritation. Some women exposed to high levels of benzene have irregular menstrual periods and reduced size of their ovaries. “It is unknown whether exposure to benzene affects the developing fetus in pregnant women or fertility in men,” says the CDC.

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

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

What other products contain benzene?

Aerosolized versions of conditioners, deodorants, antifungal deodorants, and sunscreens have all been recalled in the past two years due to possible benzene contamination.

Procter & Gamble warned last year that more than 30 aerosol hair care products, including dry shampoos and conditioners, contain high levels of benzene. The company has similarly recalled more than a dozen Old Spice and Secret-brand aerosol deodorants.

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

“You see more and more companies are starting to evaluate and research. They’re probably going to see more of these,” Swei said. “I don’t think this is the end.”

Benzene is carcinogenic, he said, but the exposure time or level required to cause these health problems is unknown. Benzene comes from several sources, so it’s hard to “account all these different types of exposure,” Swei said. He said people should “avoid using these aerosols until we can address these issues in the industrial supply chain.”

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