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Can My Acne Products Cause Cancer?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

You probably saw the recent headlines about cancer-causing chemicals in acne products. Some were alarming and vague (“List of Face Products With Chemical Linked to Cancer”); others were more specific but not very helpful (“Benzene Can Form in Acne Treatments, Lab Finds”). Here’s what’s really going on and some practical steps you can take to limit your exposure to benzene, the chemical in question.

Should I be worried about benzene in my acne products?

Probably not. Here’s why: Last week, the independent laboratory Valisure filed a petition with the FDA, requesting that the agency recall and suspend sales of products with benzoyl peroxide, an acne-treating drug that’s available over the counter (OTC) and by prescription. The lab’s reasoning: Its researchers had recently tested dozens of benzoyl-peroxide treatments and found elevated levels of the carcinogen benzene, especially after the products were exposed to high heat for multiple days.

Benzene is “a carcinogen, similar to asbestos or lead,” says Christopher Bunick, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of dermatology at Yale University, who contributed to Valisure’s petition. The FDA has set a conditional limit of up to two parts per million (2 ppm) on the presence of benzene in drugs that represent a significant therapeutic advance. Valisure found acne products that contained up to 12 times that FDA limit. It was discovered that benzene can leak into the air around closed products when exposed to heat. (For example, after testing a Proactiv product, “The amount of benzene produced in the air was approximately equivalent to 29 ppm of benzene in the BPO product,” according to the report.)

Any presence of benzene is concerning. But, “Unless someone is keeping their acne treatment in a car during the hottest days of summer, it’s incredibly unlikely your product will experience that kind of condition,” says Kelly Dobos, a professor of cosmetic science at the University of Cincinnati.

So, how do I avoid benzene exposure?

It’s impossible to avoid the chemical completely. “We’re exposed to benzene in the environment every day,” says Dobos. “According to information from the World Health Organization, outdoor air has a background benzene level ranging from 0.31 parts per billion in rural areas to 1.5 to 2.3 parts per billion in suburbs and cities.” And you’re exposed to levels that are even higher when you’re cooking over a gas flame, putting fuel in your car, or sitting next to someone who is vaping or smoking.

Okay then, how do I limit my exposure to benzene?

You could avoid all of the types of products that have been linked to elevated benzene levels, including spray-on sunscreens, spray-on dry shampoos, hand sanitizers, and benzoyl-peroxide acne treatments (the Valisure petition letter lists the products it tested, which are from brands such as Proactiv, Clearasil, PanOxyl, Up & Up, Walgreens, Cerave, and others).

If you have acne, talk to your doctor about switching to an acne treatment with a different drug (such as salicylic acid) or an active ingredient (such as retinol) that may help treat it. But if benzoyl peroxide is the only ingredient you’ve tried that works for you and you continue to use it, you may want to store it away from heat. “My advice to patients who wish to continue benzoyl peroxide is to store the medicine in the refrigerator at all times,” says Bunick. “This does not mean there will be zero benzene, but it should slow down the breakdown of benzoyl peroxide.”

Is the government doing anything about this?

The FDA may be underfunded, but it cannot ignore Valisure’s petition. “The agency acts on information provided from a variety of sources, such as that provided by Valisure, but such data must be verified as accurate and reproducible before it can be utilized to make regulatory decisions such as recommending product-sale suspensions and recall,” an FDA spokesperson tells the Cut. “When we respond to the petition, we will respond directly to the petitioner and post the response in the designated Agency public docket.” In short: The FDA is looking into it.

How am I supposed to feel safe using any skin-care products when I hear news like this?

Not all chemicals are detrimental to your health. My advice whenever you hear news like this is to take a minute to gather more research and do a personalized risk assessment, thinking about underlying health conditions you have, which products you use, how much of them you use, and how often you use them. And as you consider those factors, remember that cosmetics and OTC drugs aren’t the only products you use that may contain low levels of unsafe chemicals: They’re in beverages, packaged foods, household cleaners, furniture, and prescription drugs. I am not trying to justify their presence! This is an ongoing problem. “We have to get more regulation when it comes to over-the-counter beauty products as a whole, including the supplement market,” says dermatologist Paul Jarrod Frank, M.D.

But we do have control over our own decisions, and — even though it doesn’t always feel like it — we can influence the way the government and private companies operate. If you’re bothered by the status quo, contact your legislators and let them know your concerns. You can also reach out to manufacturers of the benzoyl-peroxide products you use (perhaps via a public forum, like social media?), and ask them to do their own benzene testing and post the results publicly. Even if the latest news doesn’t lead to a recall or changes in how cosmetics and drugs are regulated, it can still affect how companies test their products and how transparent they are about issues they find.

Send your questions to AskABeautyEditor@nymag.com. (By emailing, you agree to the terms here.)

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