What is the carcinogenic benzene? Experts explain

Two different types of Suave aerosol deodorants were voluntary recalled for containing benzene, a human carcinogen. (Photo: Getty Images)

Unilever voluntarily recalled two types of Suave spray deodorant on March 30 after they were found to contain “slightly elevated levels” of a cancer-causing ingredient called benzene, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The recalled deodorants are Suave 24-Hour Protection Aerosol Antiperspirant Powder and Suave 24-Hour Protection Aerosol Antiperspirant Fresh and have an expiration date through September 2023. “While benzene is not an ingredient in any of the recalled products, the review showed that unexpected levels of benzene came from the propellant that sprays the product out of the can,” Unilever said in a statement, adding: “No other Unilever or Suave products are in the scope of this recall.”

This isn’t the first time a product has been voluntarily recalled over benzene. In July 2021, Johnson & Johnson issued a recall of five Neutrogena aerosol sunscreens after detecting low levels of benzene in certain samples.

So what exactly is benzene?

“Benzene is a known carcinogen, which means that it is a cancer-causing ingredient,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at The Mount Sinai Hospital, tells Yahoo Life.

The chemical is colorless or light yellow and has a sweet odor to it. Benzene is often used to help make other chemicals, such as plastics, resins and nylon and synthetic fibers, as well as certain types of lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) .

What products typically contain benzene?

Benzene is practically everywhere in the environment. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s one of the 20 most widely-used chemicals in the US

“We are actually exposed to low levels of benzene in our everyday life,” explains Zeichner. Exposure to the chemical can happen through inhalation, such as with spray deodorants, orally or through the skin.

“Benzene is commonly found at very low levels in aerosol personal care products like sunscreen and most recently antiperspirants,” explains Zeichner. “Benzene is not used as an ingredient in the aerosol product, but rather develops as a by-product in the bottle after formulation. Low levels of benzene are even found in carbonated beverages like colas.”

Another common source of benzene is cigarette smoke, which accounts for about half of the total US population exposure to this chemical, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Benzene is also found in gasoline. “If you go to a gas station you’re exposed to high levels of benzene just filling up your car,” Dr. Cy Rangan, a medical toxicologist with the California Poison Control System, tells Yahoo Life.

How harmful is benzene?

Long-term exposure — meaning a year or more — to benzene can cause “harmful effects on the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia,” according to the CDC. “It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection.”

Prolonged exposure “to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs,” notes the CDC.

However, in the case of the Suave aerosol deodorants, the health risk appears to be low. Unilever stated that “based on an independent health hazard evaluation, daily exposure to benzene in the recalled products at the levels detected in testing would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences.”

Rangan explains that, although benzene is “one of a handful of chemicals in the world” that has a proven connection to cancer, “it doesn’t mean that if you get exposed you’re automatically going to get cancer.”

He adds that, with deodorant, “you’re using a very small amount of the product, so trace amounts are unlikely to contribute to a lifetime risk of benzene exposure.”

Draftsman agrees. “It is unlikely that the low levels of benzene and the small amounts of antiperspirants used on the skin are harmful to our health,” he says. “It is likely to be harmful to your health when you are exposed to it at high levels. However, for anyone concerned, I advise sticking to a stick or roll-on antiperspirant instead of an aerosol.”

In the meantime, Unilever recommends that anyone who has the recalled Suave spray deodorants should stop using them and discard them appropriately.

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