The Truth about Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Products and Benzene

Lately, people have been throwing away their acne products for fear of an ingredient called “benzene” causing cancer. Benzene is a group one carcinogen, meaning that we know it causes cancer. But, before we start throwing our benzoyl peroxide in the trash, let’s talk about what’s happening.

This all started because of a laboratory named Valisure. Valisure is a privately owned third-party company, and they took benzoyl peroxide products and tested them at different temperatures, especially extremely hot ones. 

After these tests, the independent analytical lab,  Valisure,  filed a petition with the US Food and Drug Administration to recall and suspend sales of all benzoyl peroxide products. David Light, the firm's co-founder and president, says they discovered that the benzoyl peroxide in these products turn into benzene upon breaking down or approaching the expiration date. 

Valisure also published data stating that sunscreens and dry shampoos have benzene and can cause cancer. Valisure claims that the purpose of these studies was to determine the shelf-life stability and safety of benzoyl peroxide products and sunscreens.

Skincare safety

While FDA guidelines allow up to 2 parts per million of benzene, supposedly Valisure discovered as much as “nine times that amount in some treatments.” Plus, they reported that these benzene levels increase dramatically upon exposure to higher temperatures. They tested these products at temperatures up to 150 degrees. They did this to replicate in an sped up way how benzoyl peroxide products might break down over time, for example, if stored in a medicine cabinet, a hot car, or a steamy bathroom.

During Valisure’s stability testing, they even found that  Proactiv’s 2.5% benzoyl peroxide cream, manufactured by Taro Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., which is a market competitor, contained as much as 1,761 parts per million of benzene.

So, given this, does that mean that these benzoyl products are toxic?

Well, Valisure didn’t even publish the results of what happened to the benzoyl Peroxide at room temperature. They only sounded the alarm on benzene by publishing data on the extremely heated-up products. 

To provide further explanation, Dr. Shireen Idris states that, “Benzoyl peroxide has been around for years.  The use of benzoyl peroxide has helped so many people with acne." Once it’s in the skin, it releases oxygen, and this oxygen destroys acne-causing bacteria. Both the benefits and side effects of benzoyl peroxide have been tested time and time again. 

So, if benzoyl peroxide causes cancer, wouldn’t we notice a rise of cancer in acne patients? Wouldn’t there be an elevated risk? And we’ve seen nothing like that. While there may be evidence to support the idea of small amounts of benzene being present in degraded benzoyl peroxide products, there is really no data to support that the normal use of it will cause cancer. 

So, when we think of Valisure’s claims, we know that correlation is not causation. Causation means one thing directly impacts another. It basically means an action produces a specific outcome. On the other hand, correlation is when two things are seen fluctuating together. For example, jellyfish stings may increase when the weather is hot. But, this does not indicate that hot weather causes more jellyfish stings. It could simply mean that more people are at the beach during warm weather. The same dynamic comes into play with Valisure’s benzene claims.

In reality, you’ll get more exposure to benzene in a polluted city than you’ll get from months or weeks of using products. Benzene evaporates quickly into the air and dissolves slightly in water. And on a day-to-day basis, it’s more commonly breathed in. So, if there are people experiencing moderate exposure to benzene without getting cancer, why would Valisure say that benzoyl peroxide skincare products cause cancer? 

Well, the president of this company has a patent on shelf-stable benzoyl peroxide products, which means only Valisure can own and sell them. A patent is a claim of intellectual property. It basically says, "this company had the idea first."  So, with a patent,  Valisure would be the only company allowed to sell the “shelf-stable” and "non-cancer causing" benzyol peroxide formula they created. This would have significant potential to eliminate competition with other companies, and it would exponentially increase sales and profit for Valisure  (Carr Ferrel, LLP).

Therefore, Valisure's benzene claims are questionable. But, this is not to say we are immune to Benzene exposure. It's just important to remember that benzoyl peroxide skincare products have been used for years. Moreover, there have been no notable observations that it causes cancer in customers. So, when you see alarming statements like this in the skincare industry, it's important to take into account the history of an ingredient's safety and whether the company is making a statement to influence consumer behavior.

Because odds are, when companies discover an alleged safety problem, they will advertise it and charge more for the so-called “solution” they’ve found.