The Business Times

Many dry shampoos contain cancer-causing agent, study shows

Published Tue, Nov 1, 2022 · 11:55 PM

TOP-selling dry shampoos including Not Your Mother’s and Church & Dwight Co’s Batiste contain high levels of benzene, the cancer-causing chemical that led Unilever to yank its product from shelves last month.

A new independent study by Valisure, a New Haven, Connecticut-based analytical laboratory, tested 148 batches from 34 brands of spray-on dry shampoo and found that 70 per cent contained benzene. The chemical can cause certain blood cancers, such as leukaemia.

Valisure filed a petition Monday (Oct 31) with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seeking to have the products that contain the substance recalled.

The results add to concerns that products sold over the counter in pharmacies and grocery stores across the US could present previously undetected health risks. Over the past year, Valisure has found benzene in popular spray sunscreens, antiperspirants and hand sanitizers. Stores have pulled the products from shelves, while regulators and manufacturers are looking more closely at whether impurities are slipping by unnoticed in a complex supply chain. 

The highest benzene levels among the dry shampoos were found in a popular brand called Not Your Mother’s, which touts its “clean, quality ingredients”. Other brands found to have elevated benzene included Batiste, Sun Bum and John Paul Mitchell Systems.

Valisure’s petition did not include dry shampoos already recalled for elevated benzene, such as Unilever brands Dove, Suave and Bed Head, as well as Procter & Gamble Co’s Pantene and Herbal Essences. The benzene levels Valisure found in some of the dry shampoos are significantly higher than any personal-care products the lab has tested before, the study showed. 

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When asked if Batiste had been tested for benzene, a spokesperson for Church & Dwight said the company had previously confirmed with its ingredient suppliers that their products didn’t contain the chemical, and said it would evaluate Valisure’s petition. Not Your Mother’s, Sun Bum and John Paul Mitchell Systems did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Valisure brings in income by partnerships it has with businesses to check the quality of certain products. It also has investors, such as Realist Ventures, which is also based in Connecticut.

Batiste, Not Your Mother’s and Dove are the top selling dry shampoo brands in the US.

Chicago-based market research firm IRI said that Batiste makes up 44 per cent of the US$309 million in sales in the year ending Jul 10 among the top 10 brands in the US. Dry shampoo sales were up 22 per cent from a year earlier, it added.

Church & Dwight chief executive officer Matt Farrell told investors during a recent earnings call that Batiste use was up 37 per cent in the third quarter from a year earlier, giving the company a 46 per cent market share. The company’s chief financial officer Rick Dierker added:  “Batiste is growing like crazy. It’s doing fantastic, we can’t meet all the demand, consumption is up dramatically.”

A spray from one can of Not Your Mother’s Beach Babe dry shampoo contained 158 parts per million (ppm) of benzene, according to Valisure’s findings. In previous studies, the lab found sunscreens with up to 6 ppm, hand sanitizers with 16 ppm and antiperspirants with 18 ppm. A can of Batiste Bare Dry Shampoo contained 15 ppm of benzene in one spray.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said inhaling benzene at levels of 0.4 parts per billion (ppb), or 0.0004 ppm, chronically over a lifetime could result in one additional cancer per 100,000 people, a measure of risk the FDA also uses. 

“Dry shampoo is not a product you use one time and are done with it,” said David Light, CEO of Valisure. “A lot of people use it once a day, or a few times a week.”

The high numbers call into question statements like the one Unilever made when it recalled Dove, Tresemme, Suave, Bed Head and Rockaholic dry shampoos on Oct 18. The company then stated that “based on an independent health hazard evaluation, daily exposure to benzene in the recalled products at the levels detected in testing would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences”. Unilever did not respond to questions about the levels of benzene found in its products.

“We had seen significant amounts of benzene in Unilever products before they went on recall,” Light said, declining to specify amounts. 

Proctor & Gamble (P&G) was the first to recall dry shampoo in December, pulling Pantene and Herbal Essences versions from shelves. The move came after it tested its entire aerosol portfolio, following the revelations from Valisure’s previous work. No other major consumer-goods manufacturer has publicly disclosed similar internal testing.

Valisure has found high benzene levels in spray sunscreens, including versions of Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena products, aerosol antiperspirants such as P&G’s Secret and Old Spice brands, and some hand sanitisers that were introduced to the market at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. 

The supply chains that bring consumers their grooming products are complex, globe-spanning endeavours, making it difficult to determine precisely where the toxins are introduced.

Light said that the problems potentially go “all the way back to a raw material being contaminated and making it through the entire global supply chain, through all the various hands it has to touch, and all the various quality check points that are supposed to be there.” After all that, “it is still ending up on the shelf in a customer’s hands, in their homes, with such alarmingly high levels of contamination. That’s very concerning.”

Some companies have pointed to propellants as the problem. Spray personal-care products, including dry shampoos, often contain propellants like propane and butane that are petroleum distillates made by refining crude oil. Benzene is a known contaminant of petroleum products. The propane and butane used in personal-care products are supposed to be purified so that no benzene is present.

The FDA has confirmed propellants are a potential source of benzene contamination. On Jul 29, Edgewell Personal Care Co recalled its aerosol Banana Boat Hair & Scalp sunscreen because of benzene contamination. The company said the “unexpected levels of benzene came from the propellant that sprays the product out of the can”.

The FDA has asked companies that make drug products at high risk of being contaminated with benzene, like sunscreen, to test for the toxin.

Dry shampoo is a cosmetic, which the FDA regulates, but not nearly as stringently as it does drugs.

While the FDA has not set benzene limits for cosmetics, it does say the products should not contain “any poisonous or deleterious substance”. In drug applications, the FDA allows levels of 2 ppm of benzene if “use is unavoidable in order to produce a drug product with a significant therapeutic advance”.

Valisure has asked the FDA to clarify that there isn’t an acceptable level of benzene in cosmetic products and to develop guidelines for benzene testing in cosmetics. The company’s analysis found extreme variation in sprays even from the same can, “suggesting inconsistent product composition and/or aerosolisation in some products,” the lab said in the petition.

While Not Your Mother’s Clean Freak dry shampoo contained 143 ppm of benzene in the first spray, the fourth spray contained 93 ppm. Valisure’s findings, including a list of contaminated dry shampoos, can be found in the petition it filed with the FDA.

The contamination could be even higher than those findings, an expanded study showed.

Valisure has been testing for benzene in personal-care products for some time, but with its dry-shampoo probe, the researchers took a deeper approach. The lab partnered with Syft Technologies, a company that designs and sells trace gas analysis equipment, to conduct direct air-measurement tests, which can more precisely capture benzene levels. Syft is headquartered in New Zealand, with an office in Pittsburgh.

When Valisure tests a product, it uses a standard procedure that requires putting a sample into a vial. This means some chemicals may escape before they are measured. Syft uses a method that detects chemical levels in the air, including whatever is sprayed from an aerosol can.

Data based on Syft’s findings likely mimic real-world conditions more closely. Using Syft’s data, Valisure determined that it is possible the actual benzene levels in spray-on dry shampoo could be 10 to 50 times higher than what standard testing reveals.

For example, Syft found benzene levels of 1,600 ppb – 4,000 times higher than the EPA’s guidance – in the initial cloud of a 10-second spray of Not Your Mother’s dry shampoo. Longer-term exposure showed about 36 ppb, with Syft taking measurements in a 550 cubic foot space over 15 minutes. Using that data, Valisure calculated that the benzene concentration in the Not Your Mother’s can totalled 340 ppm, or 170 times the FDA’s limit for drugs. BLOOMBERG

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