Benzene, Chemical Linked to Cancer, Found in Dry Shampoos


  • An independent lab found elevated levels of benzene in dry shampoos sold by Sun Bum and Batiste.
  • Benzene is a chemical that has been linked to cancer.
  • Little research exists on the risk benzene in cosmetics pose to human health. 

An independent lab found elevated levels of benzene, a chemical linked to cancer, in popular dry shampoos just weeks after a major cosmetic brand recalled more than a dozen dry shampoos for benzene contamination.

The lab, Valisure, tested 148 products from 34 hair brands, including those owned by L’Oreal and Johnson & Johnson.

The Food and Drug Administration discourages manufacturers from selling products containing more than two parts per million (ppm) of benzene. Valisure’s analysis found 11 brands, including Sun Bum and Batiste, sold dry shampoos containing more than 2 ppm of benzene. One brand, Not Your Mother’s, sold dry shampoos containing over 10 times the recommended amount of benzene.

Benzene is a widely used industrial chemical found naturally in crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. Manufacturers frequently use it to make plastic, synthetic fibers, rubbers, detergents, and dyes, according to the CDC.

People who work around benzene are at a higher risk for some cancers, according to the World Health Organization. One study from 2012 identified higher rates of leukemia, or blood cancer, among workers at oil refineries, chemical producers, and shoe-makers who were exposed to large amounts of benzene.

Valisure submitted a citizen petition demanding the FDA recall the products contaminated with benzene, update regulations that limit the amount of benzene cosmetic products can contain, and work with the Environmental Protection Agency to limit environmental exposure to benzene. 

“The detection of high levels of benzene in dry shampoos should be cause for significant concern since these products are likely used indoors, where benzene may linger and be inhaled for prolonged periods of time,” David Light, the CEO of Valisure, said in a press release.

“The FDA is reviewing the petition and will respond directly to the petitioner,” an agency spokesperson told Insider.

The brands Valisure identified as selling dry shampoos with more than 2 ppm of benzene were not immediately available for comment.

Valisure’s report comes after Unilever, the parent company for Bed Head, TIGI, Dove, and Tresemmé, voluntarily recalled 19 dry-shampoo products last month due to benzene contamination. Unilever said the amount of benzene would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences and issued the recall “out of an abundance of caution.”

Researchers are still studying benzene risk from cosmetic exposure

Though numerous studies have established a link between high levels of benzene exposure and cancer, Valisure could not provide Insider with research that tied benzene exposure from cosmetics to cancer. But the lab said evidence suggests long-term exposure to low levels could cause”detrimental” health effects.

For example, a 2003 study of Australian petroleum-industry workers, cited by Valisure, found the risk for leukemia increased at exposures of 2 ppm per year and kept increasing at higher rates of exposure. But the researchers said they did not find evidence that short-term exposure to high amounts of benzene posed the same health risks as high exposure over a long period of time.

A 2012 paper on benzene, funded by the EPA, acknowledged the “need for further assessment” on health risks from low-level environmental exposure.

But the agency said the limited data on low-dose exposure to benzene means that the “true cancer risk from exposure to benzene” in small amounts “cannot be ascertained.” 

Joe Schwarcz, a chemist and science communicator at McGill University, said in a blog post that alarm over benzene in personal-care products might be overblown, given the lack of evidence that low-level exposure causes cancer. But he said that it’s still a good idea to avoid carcinogens.

“While the risk may be small, when it comes to carcinogens, we should look to reduce any unnecessary exposure,” Schwarcz said.

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