What Is Benzene? A Break Down of the Chemical That Caused a Dry Shampoo Recall

Here’s everything you need to know, and how much you need to worry, according to experts.

<p>Getty Images</p>

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For dry shampoo enthusiasts, the news that Unilver recalled 19 of its most popular dry shampoos was shocking to say the least.

On Oct. 18, the multinational consumer goods company voluntarily pulled dry shampoos from Dove, Nexxus, Suave, TIGI, and TRESemmé after finding these products contained potential high levels of benzene.

But what does that all mean? What is benzene? And how much should you worry if you use dry shampoo on the reg? To have all your questions answered, we turned to the experts. See what they had to say about this chemical and the safety of dry shampoos now, below.


What is benzene?

Benzene is a flammable and colorless (sometimes light yellow) liquid chemical with a sweet scent that evaporates quickly into the air. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), benzene is formed in nature — think volcanoes and forest fires — it ranks in the top 20 chemicals for production volume, and is commonly used as as an industrial solvent and gasoline additive. It's also a part of the process when it comes to the manufacturing of plastics, resins, nylon and synthetic fibers, dyes, lubricants, rubbers, and some cleaning products.

As for dry shampoos and other beauty products containing this particular chemical, Dr. Emanuela Taioli, M.D., director at the Institute for Translational Epidemiology and associate director for population science at the Tisch Cancer institute, says that it is believed that benzene is a byproduct of the gases that are used to create the propellant of the spray. “This means that many sprays could emit benzene as a byproduct,” says Dr. Taioli. “Not just dry shampoo.”

Cosmetic chemist and founder of Fanlovebeauty Ginger King adds that benzene is an impurity in the petroleum that’s found in aerosol cans. Because most dry shampoos come in aerosol cans, benzene can be found where the propellant is not purified. With supply chain issues, she also says that some manufacturers may not be using the best grade petroleum, which is at greater risk for contamination.

Why is benzene considered dangerous?

Dr. Clare Bertucio, M.D., radiation oncologist and CEO of Medicine Mama’s - Vmagic, says that while high levels of benzene may cause irritation of the scalp, there have yet to be any real findings that connect the chemical to scalp and hair health. The main concern is how it is linked to cancer.

Dr. Taioli says that benzene is a genotoxic and alters the DNA in various ways that can cause cancer. Studies have shown that exposure to this chemical are linked to certain cancers such as leukemia, multiple myeloma, and non-hodgkin lymphoma.

Dr Bertucio adds benzene has been found to cause abnormalities of the blood and blood-producing tissues. According to the CDC, it can cause the bone marrow to produce less red blood cells and lead to anemia and it can cause damage to the immune system by changing the blood levels of antibodies which leads to the loss of white blood cells.

Should you be worried if you use dry shampoo regularly?

While all the concerns listed above sound scary (because they are), the CDC says that the likelihood of it causing cancer and other health issues are all dependent on the amount used, the length of exposure, preexisting medical conditions, and other factors. Many of the studies that link benzene to cancer aren’t conclusive, and Dr. Bertucio says that research is ongoing.

Dr. Taioli doesn’t think you should screen for cancers like leukemia regularly just because you happen to be an avid dry shampoo user, and it’s important to note that benzene is not actually an ingredient. As mentioned before, it is a byproduct of the petroleum in aerosol cans. “Technically there should be no beauty product containing benzene,” she says. “This was likely an accidental contamination.”

But if you're really concerned, we encourage you to consult with your doctor, or you're experiencing any side effects (the CDC lists dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and tremors as signs of high benzene exposure). Also, it may be best to hold off using any of the recalled dry shampoos just to be extra careful.

What alternatives are there?

King and Dr. Taoili recommend non-aerosol dry shampoos should this recall scare you. Some alternative options include the Crown Affair The Dry Shampoo, Act+Acre Plant Based Dry Shampoo, and the Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Biotin Dry Shampoo.

Dr. Bertucio agrees and generally recommends reading labels and avoiding things that you can’t identify or understand if you want to be extra safe. “I personally aim for fewer ingredients, natural, and organic in my cosmetics and my foods,” she says. “I know it sounds corny, but, ‘my body, my temple.’ We as humans are better served with this approach, and it is certainly better for our planet as a whole.” 

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