Cancer-Causing Chemical Found in Popular Acne Treatment

High levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene have been found in popular acne treatments containing the drug benzoyl peroxide.

Benzoyl peroxide (BPO) is an FDA-approved drug that is used in many popular acne treatments, but an independent laboratory has found that these products form dangerously high levels of benzene — a known human carcinogen.

The lab, called Valisure, conducted tests on 66 different prescription and over-the-counter BPO products and found that they can form over 800 times the conditionally restricted FDA concentration limit of 2 parts per million (ppm) for benzene.

The lab says the current evidence suggests that this problem applies broadly to different BPO products currently being sold by a variety of brands.

Valisure found that high levels of benzene were not only inside BPO products, but also in the air around BPO products exposed to warm temperatures, showing that benzene can leak out of some product packages and pose a potential inhalation risk.

For example, incubation of a Proactiv product at the temperature of a hot car (70°C) resulted in benzene levels in the car’s air that were roughly 1,270 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s calculated threshold for increased cancer risk by long-term inhalation exposure to benzene.

Benzene has previously been found in other products, including sunscreens and hand sanitizers, though not at the same levels as the BPO 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,” said David Light, Valisure’s co-founder and president, in a news release.

Benzene is a colorless or light yellow liquid that has been shown to cause harmful effects on the bone marrow and a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance of infection. Benzene can also lead to reproductive issues, and long-term exposure to high levels of the chemical in the air can cause leukemia.

The lab concludes that BPO medications are fundamentally unstable and can generate unacceptably high levels of benzene when handled or stored at higher temperatures, such as inside a steamy bathroom. Benzene can both be produced in the product itself and potentially escape into the surrounding air.

As a result, Valisure is petitioning for an FDA investigation into the drug and for products containing BPO to be removed from store shelves.

The lab meanwhile notes that only BPO-containing acne treatment products have this issue of forming high levels of benzene and that other acne treatment products tested by Valisure, such as those containing salicylic acid or adapalene, do not appear to have the same problem.

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