High levels of cancer-causing chemical linked to popular OTC acne products: report

After discovering they can form alarmingly high levels of a cancer-linked chemical when stored at certain temperatures, an independent laboratory is urging federal health officials to recall several popular benzoyl peroxide acne treatment products.

According to Valisure, a self-described “pioneer in independent quality assurance for pharmaceuticals,” the company has “conducted extensive testing… revealing that benzene, a known human carcinogen, can form at high levels in Benzoyl Peroxide (‘BPO’) acne treatment products.”

The lab tested “dozens of prescription and over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide products,” Valisure said, and the results “suggest that currently formulated BPO medications are fundamentally unstable and can generate unacceptably high levels of benzene when handled or stored at [the] higher temperatures that the products may be exposed to during handling by consumers.”

“Benzene can be produced in the product itself and potentially escape into the surrounding air,” the lab stated. “Therefore, Valisure is requesting an investigation and market withdrawal of BPO-containing products.”

After establishing 50°C as a “stability temperature,” the lab studied 66 BPO-containing products, “including creams, lotions, gels, washes, liquids and bars” from “popular brands such as Clearasil, Proactiv, Target’s Up & Up brand and Clinique,” according to FOX Business.

“In 18 days of stability testing at 50°C, Valisure detected over 1,500 ppm [parts per million] of benzene produced in 2 products, over 100 ppm in 17 products, and over 10 ppm in 42 products,” the lab found.

“Results from Valisure’s tests show that on-market BPO products can form over 800 times the conditionally restricted FDA concentration limit of 2 parts per million (ppm) for benzene,” the lab warned.

“This discovery of benzoyl peroxide’s fundamental instability and formation of benzene is substantially different than Valisure’s previous findings of benzene in sunscreens, hand sanitizers and other consumer products,” Valisure co-founder David Light said in a statement.

“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,” he explained. “This means the problem broadly affects benzoyl peroxide products, both prescription and over-the-counter, and necessitates urgent action.”

According to Valisure, “Benzene toxicity in humans has been well established for over 120 years.”

“There is not a safe level of benzene that can exist in any skin care product, over the counter or prescription,” said Christopher Bunick, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Dermatology at Yale University. “The current data on BPO degrading into high levels of benzene is extremely concerning given its prominent use in skin care, and this study should serve as another wake-up call for improved manufacturing and quality control of consumer healthcare products.”

The FDA, however, said the effects of exposure can depend on several variables.

“The FDA said the health consequences of exposure to benzene can ‘depend on the amount, route, and length of time of exposure’ as well as someone’s age and any preexisting medical conditions,” FOX Business reports. “Long-term exposure to the chemical through inhalation, oral intake and skin absorption may result in cancers such as leukemia and other blood disorders, the FDA said.”

Melissa Fine


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