What is benzene? Answer questions about the dry shampoo recall.


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

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

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

Which dry shampoos are being recalled by Unilever?

Unilever has issued a voluntary recall for aerosol dry shampoo manufactured before October 2021 under the brands Bed Head, Dove, Nexxus, Suave, Rockaholic and TRESemme in the US. The company said in a statement that it has not learned of any “adverse events” related to the products in the recall, and that an “independent health hazard 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 for the specific products, which you can find here.

Benzene is a colorless or pale yellow liquid that smells sweet and is highly flammable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency says it is one of the top 20 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, nylon, and synthetic fibers, as well as some lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides.

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

How does benzene end up in your dry shampoo?

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

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

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

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

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

Is benzene harmful to humans?

Breathing in, digesting 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 blood levels of antibodies. People who breathe in high levels of benzene can become drowsy, dizzy and confused, and experience headaches, irregular heartbeats and tremors.

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

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

If you’re going to use an aerosol product, Dobos said, do so in a well-ventilated area, 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 last year recalled more than 30 aerosolized hair care products, including dry shampoo and conditioner, warning that they contain high levels of trace benzene. The company also issued a similar recall of more than a dozen Old Spice and Secret brand aerosol deodorants.

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

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

Benzene is carcinogenic, he said, but the duration or level of exposure required to cause these health problems is not known. Benzene comes from multiple sources, so it’s hard to “account for all these different types of exposure,” Swei said. People need to “avoid using these aerosols until the industry can fix these problems in the supply chain,” he said.

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