I know why this question is on your mind. Last week, the independent testing facility Valisure reported that it had found benzene, a known carcinogen, in 70 percent of dry shampoos it tested. Alarming headlines — “Popular Dry Shampoos Found to Have Cancer-Causing Chemical,“ “19 dry shampoos recalled over potential cancer-causing ingredient”) — ensued. Since I’m guessing you don’t have a mass-spectrometry system on hand to test every bottle of dry shampoo you buy for benzene contamination, you’re wondering if you should quit the stuff altogether.
Thing is, no one needs dry shampoo. And there are many other, excellent ways to prevent oily roots. But before I get into that, I think we need to address a bigger issue: This is not the first time we’ve seen disturbing headlines related to the safety of beauty products, and it won’t be the last. So how should you react when you hear news like this? My suggestion: Do a personalized risk assessment. I say personalized because everyone who does this is going to come up with a different answer. But I think it may help if I walk you through how I did mine.
First, I checked myself for confirmation bias: Was I focusing on the headlines because they aligned with what I already believed? Or cherry-picking articles that confirmed my opinion? (I try not to, but it’s always good to remind myself of that possibility.) Next, I dug into the news. I ignored the click-bait and worked my way back to the original source, a citizen petition Valisure filed with the FDA that requested multiple actions, including product recalls, based on its findings. I noticed immediately that its report only pertained to aerosolized dry shampoos. (Benzene is not an ingredient in dry shampoo, but some propellants used in aerosol sprays can be contaminated with the chemical, according to a previous FDA alert.) I also realized that the detected benzene levels were low, between .18 parts per million (ppm) and 158 ppm; varied greatly based on each spraying (i.e., not consistent); and in many cases were lower than the allowable concentration limit (2 ppm) that the FDA has set for drugs.
Don’t get me wrong: Its presence is still troubling. But the health issues linked to benzene (blood disorders and cancers, such as leukemia) are based on chronic, long-term exposure of the kind you’d get if you, say, worked in a factory with industrial solvents. I happen to use dry shampoo twice a week, for about five seconds, in a well-ventilated bathroom with the door open. So, my conclusion at that point was: I’m still using aerosol dry shampoo.
To help you make a decision, I checked with Michelle Wong, Ph.D., a cosmetic chemist and science educator based in Sydney, Australia. “This news does not mean any exposure to benzene will cause cancer, which is how people tend to interpret it,” she says. “It’s about probability based on the amounts and the exposure — and the risk is really small.” She pointed out that avoiding benzene altogether in the modern world is impossible. It’s in the air we breathe in low doses (we’re typically exposed to up to 1,300 micrograms a day here in the U.S.) and in things like secondhand smoke and rush-hour traffic in larger doses. “Personally, this doesn’t affect my use of aerosolized products,” Wong says.
But let’s say you look through the same research and decide, Hell no. Maybe you have other health issues or elevated cancer risks. Or you use dry shampoo in a closed space. Or you think incurring health risks of any kind for an unnecessary cosmetic product is completely ridiculous. If that’s the case, I totally get it!
Here’s what you can do: If you use dry shampoo purely as a styling aid (not because your scalp is oily), try a texturizing spray or powder that delivers that same type of grip and oomph. These are admittedly hard to find in non-aerosol form, but I like Ceremonia Guava Beach Waves (a spray) and Bumble and bumble Prêt-à-Powder (a powder).
If you use dry shampoo between washes because your scalp gets greasy, then work out another oil-control strategy. If the greasiness isn’t caused by a health condition, it might be a form of rebound oiliness from shampooing too frequently. If you cut back on shampoo frequency, you may notice your scalp is less oily (a counterintuitive and annoying process, but for some people it works). “There is a natural oil equilibrium that we all have to figure out on our scalp,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., a dermatologist based in Connecticut. “For some this equilibrium comes from daily wash, others find it in a monthly wash.”
You might want to experiment by swapping your regular shampoo for a clarifying version every few washes. Aveeno’s scalp-friendly apple-cider-vinegar version is nice. Or find a shampoo that’s less heavy and creamy than your current one. (I am obsessed with Necessaire’s shampoo, a transparent formula that still has a luxe lather and moisturizes without greasing up your scalp or weighing your lengths down — truly a wonder.)
The easiest option of all: Switch to a non-aerosol version of dry shampoo. Wong uses her translucent face powder to de-grease her bangs (“Not because I’m worried about the aerosol — I just think the sprays make my fringe staticky” she says). Some people can even get away with using cornstarch as dry shampoo. Me? I prefer the options below. But as with your personal risk assessment, you do what’s right for you.
NON-AEROSOL DRY SHAMPOOS
No risk of benzene here.
This might be the chic-est dry shampoo ever, and the brush makes targeted application (between braids, just the bangs, etc.) easier.
This puffs out in a satisfying little cloud that covers a larger area than some of the shake-on versions — great if you have long hair.
Apply pre-workout (or before bed, as the name suggests) to keep sweat and oil from ruining your style.