Known Workplace Carcinogens Found in Everyday Hand Sanitizers

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Researchers Find Cancer-causing Toxins in 21 Hand Sanitizers

In a recently released study of 260 hand sanitizer products, an independent lab found dangerous levels of benzene and other chemical substances in 21 hand sanitizers from 15 brands. Gels, manual pump spray bottles, and other types of products were tested by Valisure after crowdsourcing funds for harmful contamination research.

Bottles shaped like Baby Yoda and alongside the brand Star Wars Mandalorian had unsafe levels of the toxin and could be purchased on Amazon. After Valisure’s results were published, the Walt Disney Company announced its own investigation and asked its manufacturer Best Brands to cease production until they learn more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) have determined that benzene, a chemical commonly used by the rubber industry and oil refineries, can cause cancer in humans – usually, blood disorders like leukemia. Moreover, inhaling high concentrations of benzene can cause side effects in the nervous system (like seizures).

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Relaxed FDA Standards

Generally, hand sanitizers are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, due to low supplies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization relaxed certain chemical standards in the manufacture of hand sanitizers – including levels for benzene. Of the tested products containing benzene, 50 percent were manufactured in China, 34 percent in the U.S., and 2 percent in Mexico.

While Valisure’s study is the first to petition the FDA about unsafe benzene levels in these products, methanol contamination in 2020 forced the FDA to implement import alerts on all hand sanitizers manufactured in Mexico. Approximately 83 percent of FDA product warnings for hand sanitizer come from products made in Mexico (seven percent come from China and three percent from the U.S.).

Hand sanitizer brands that tested above the safe levels of benzene included:

  • Artnaturals
  • Beauty Concepts
  • Body Prescriptions
  • Born Basic
  • Clean-protect-sanitize
  • The Crème Shop
  • Hand Clean 100
  • Huangjisoo
  • Miami CarryOn
  • Natural Wunderz
  • PureLogic
  • Puretize
  • Scentsational Soaps & Candles Inc.
  • Star Wars Mandalorian
  • TrueWash

Symptoms of Benzene Exposure

Benzene, in most cases, is colorless or a light yellow liquid. Although it evaporates rapidly, benzene vapor is heavier than air and dissolves only somewhat in water.

Inhaling high concentrations of airborne benzene is incredibly toxic. Historically, manufacturing workers in industries that use lots of chemicals (i.e., rubber, plastic, resin, and synthetic fiber-making) were at risk of benzene exposure. However, gasoline and tobacco smoke are also common sources of hazardous benzene exposure today – though concentrations are normally low outside. Consequently, most people are exposed to benzene at gas stations, working near vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, and by smoking cigarettes.

Someone who has breathed in large amounts of benzene may exhibit the following symptoms between a few minutes and several hours after exposure:

  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death (after very high levels of exposure)

Ingesting hand sanitizer containing benzene could send toxic particles into the lungs and airways. Side effects of benzene irritation in the lungs include coughing and breathing problems. Primarily, the long-term effects of regular benzene exposure include impairment of the circulatory and immune systems. Over time, benzene damages bone marrow-producing red blood cells (leading to cancers like leukemia).

What Should I Do If I’ve Used Bad Hand Sanitizer?

According to the results of the study, workers who put on gloves after using benzene-contaminated hand sanitizer are most at risk of negative health effects. Wearing gloves or other protective gear over your hands after using hand sanitizer can trap benzene particles and prevent them from evaporating.

Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum of the Colorado School of Public health warns that healthcare personnel may be most at risk of benzene exposure from bad hand sanitizers.

“If you’re not wearing gloves over [your hands], the risk is quite low because your skin is warm, you use that, the benzene will evaporate quite rapidly.”

In addition to healthcare workers who regularly wear latex gloves after applying hand sanitizer, sanitation and food workers are equally at risk. Ultimately, for anyone wearing gloves after the use of contaminated hand sanitizer, “the longer you use it, the greater the risk.”

If you’ve been exposed to potentially toxic hand sanitizers, immediately stop using them, wash your hands and clothes, and make a virtual appointment with your primary care medical center (if you feel any symptoms or had prolonged periods of exposure). You can send your bottles to Valisure by mail for contamination testing.

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