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Known Carcinogen Found in Popular Acne Treatments—Here’s What You Need to Know

Known Carcinogen Found in Popular Acne Treatments—Here’s What You Need to Know
  • A private testing lab announced that high levels of a cancer-causing chemical have been found in various over-the-counter acne treatment products.

  • Products affected include those containing benzoyl peroxide from popular brands like Clearasil, Proactiv, Clinique, and more.

  • While there is no official recall at this time, the lab is urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate further.


It may be time to check your skincare routine for cancer-causing ingredients. Valisure, an independent quality assurance lab announced on March 6 that high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, were found in popular acne treatments containing benzoyl peroxide (BPO).

As of press time, there is no official recall, but Valisure has submitted a petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting a formal recall.

“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, and the current evidence suggests that this problem applies broadly to BPO products currently on the market,” Valisure explained in its initial alert. While high levels of benzene were found inside BPO products, there is also a potential “inhalation risk” as benzene was found in the air around “incubated BPO products.”

Valisure’s testing on dozens of prescription and over-the-counter BPO products revealed that the formulas “are fundamentally unstable” and detected elevated benzene levels in 66 BPO products, including creams, lotions, gels, and cleansers. These products were shown to “generate unacceptably high levels of benzene” when exposed to high temperatures. Therefore, the risk is not product contamination but product handling and storage and possibly product formulation.

The complete list of products can be found in the petition sent to the FDA, but includes:

  • Proactiv 2.5% BPO cream

  • Up & Up 2.5% BPO cream

  • Clinique 2.5% BPO cream

  • Clearsil 10% BPO cream

  • Differin 5% BPO cream

  • Neutrogena 10% BPO gel

  • and more

Since filing the petition, the FDA confirmed they would investigate Valisure’s claims further. “The agency will continue to provide updates to the public regarding benzene in drug products, as appropriate,” Jeremy Kahn, a spokesperson for the FDA said in a statement, per Time Magazine.

Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most highly recommended ingredients for fighting acne, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. It is “an effective acne-fighting ingredient because it has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and prevents the formation of clogged pores,” Brendan Camp, M.D., a double board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in Manhattan previously explained of benzoyl peroxide products.

What is benzene?

Benzene is a colorless or light yellow chemical that’s highly flammable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also dissolves quickly in the air.

It works by “causing cells to not work correctly,” per the CDC. The seriousness of poisoning caused by the carcinogen depends on the amount, route, and length of exposed time. Any preexisting medical conditions and the age of the person exposed factor into the equation as well.

What should you do next?

Following Valisure’s announcement, it’s understandable to be concerned if you use BPO products. There are currently no guidelines in place for consumers while the FDA investigates these claims further. However, if you feel safer disposing of your BPO products, you can follow Valisure’s responsible disposal guidelines and be aware of the potential for recall.

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