P&G Recalls Antiperspirants, Body Sprays Due To Cancer Risk Of Benzene

Regularly spraying some benzene under your arms could be the pits so to speak. That’s why Procter & Gamble (P&G) Company is voluntarily recalling certain Old Spice and Secret antiperspirant and hygiene products after benzene was detected in samples of these products. After all, you don’t want to sweat the possibility of benzene causing cancer and other serious health problems.

Of course, even if you apply body spray like you were crop dusting a field or re-creating the dry ice fog on The Phantom Of The Opera, one or even a few applications of body spray is probably not going to give you enough benzene to make you sick. It’s not as if these products are pure or even predominantly benzene. The P&G announcement did say that the company “has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall and is conducting this recall out of an abundance of caution,” as opposed to a shortage of caution. However, repeated exposure to even very small amounts of benzene over time could lead to health problems like anemia and leukemia.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also posted the recall announcement, which provided a list of the specific products affected by the recall and their associated Universal Product Codes (UPCs). All of them have been packaged in aerosol cans and have expiry dates through September 2023. As you can see, these products bear names such as Old Spice High Endurance, Old Spice Hardest Working Collection, Old Spice Below Deck, Secret, Secret Fresh Collection, Secret Outlast, and Old Spice Pure Sport. So if you have a Secret, you may want to cross check the product with this recall list.

If you recall, this isn’t the first major product recall due to benzene this month. On November 14, I covered for Forbes such a recall involving ArtNaturals hand sanitizer. Nearly eight months prior to that recall, Valisure, a company that tests and checks the composition of different health-related products, had announced on March 24 that they had found benzene in samples of the hand sanitizer product. They had also written a Citizen Petition letter urging the FDA to request a recall of the ArtNaturals hand sanitizer product.

A similar Valisure announcement pre-dated the Old Spice and Secret antiperspirant body spray recall as well, albeit with much less time in between. On November 4, Valisure announced that they had “tested and detected high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen, in several brands and batches of antiperspirant body sprays, which are considered drug products by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as in deodorant body spray products, which FDA generally regulates as cosmetics.” The announcement further elaborated that “54% of samples tested by Valisure contained detectable benzene and some batches contained up to nine times the conditionally restricted FDA concentration limit of 2 parts per million (ppm).”

In the announcement, Valisure included a link to Valisure’s FDA Citizen Petition on Body Spray, a letter to the FDA requesting further investigation into and encouraging recalls of the body spray products that Valisure had identified. The Valisure list included not only Old Spice and Secret products but products from other manufacturers as well. So if you are using anything besides a mop or a giant cotton swab to make your armpits less sweaty, you may want to take a peak at the Valisure list to see if your product is on there.

Again, benzene may rhyme with green bean or Charlie Sheen but that doesn’t mean that you should let it near you. Benzene can get into your body through your mouth, nose, skin, and mucous membranes such as your eyes. Once inside your body, benzene can be very marrow-minded. It can mess with the cells in your bone marrow. This can lead to anemia and abnormal bleeding, weakening of your immune system, and leukemia, which in the words of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is “a broad term for cancers of the blood cells.” 

Benzene in body sprays may be an even bigger problem than benzene in hand sanitizers. Unless you do jazz hands immediately after you apply hand sanitizer, you probably aren’t spraying the substance all around the room. By contrast, body spray can end up lingering in the air long after you’ve finished making yourself less stinky. Anyone who walks into the bathroom, the office, the closet, or wherever you’ve groomed yourself may then inhale the persistent mist or get it in their eyes or on their skin. Thus you may be posing a recurrent danger for both you and those around you. “Honey, at least I am less smelly,” would not be a reasonable tradeoff for causing cancer in your significant other down the road.

Why is benzene now being detected in different consumer products? Well, benzene in many products could be a bit like love between friends at the beginning of a rom-com. Maybe it’s long been there, but people just haven’t really been looking for it. In fact, David Light, Founder and CEO of Valisure, said that, “Contaminations issues may have been even worse in past.” He described benzene as a “cheap solvent. It’s a great chemical to make other chemicals.” As a result, benzene had long been extensively used in many different industries.

But things started changing after “the first epidemiological studies showing the links between benzene and cancer were published in the late 1970’s,” according to Light. He said that benzene is now “one of the most well understood and well-documented carcinogens.” Light added that the published studies in the 1970’s led to “a push in the 1980’s to replace benzene. Industry has gone though great lengths to remove benzene from products.”

So benzene may be less pervasive now than previously. Nevertheless, without more routine independent testing, it’s difficult to say where benzene and other potential cancer-causing agents may still persist. “There is a need for a layer of independent testing,” Light emphasized. “Independent review has been largest absent for pharmaceuticals and consumer goods. It continues to rely largely on self-report.” In other words, like body odor, without others to sniff around and say, “you stink,” problems may go unnoticed. Light described this as an “honor-system” and pointed out that what happened with the Boeing 737 MAX showed how “honor systems” aren’t enough to keep the public safe.

“The way the system is set up, a lot of people defer to FDA and assume that the FDA is doing everything,” Light explained. “But the FDA simply makes sure that manufacturer is following GMP [good manufacturing practices]. The actual testing is being done by manufacturer.”  

Here’s another challenge. As supply chains get more complex and global, it is increasingly difficult to ensure the quality and safety of various raw materials. Benzene and other such contaminants could already be in the raw materials that are used and processed way before a manufacturer sees them.

All of this points to a need for more independent testing. This means having labs that don’t already have strong links to manufacturers regularly screen different consumer goods and pharmaceutical products for a range of possible impurities and contaminants. After all, someone needs to raise a stink when antiperspirants and other products have benzene or any other unacceptable chemicals that may cause disease.

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