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Does Benzene Cause Cancer?

November 11, 2023

Benzene made headlines when a number of popular hair and body products were recalled for having heightened levels of the chemical.

But what exactly is benzene, and how can it impact your health? We asked Madhavi Gorusu, MD, MBA, a hematologist and oncologist with the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at The Hospital of Central Connecticut to break it down.

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What is benzene?

Benzene is a colorless chemical found naturally, and also used to make products like gasoline, rubber, dyes, cleaning products, glues, adhesives and more.

is an aromatic hydrocarbon and a component of crude oil and gasoline. It’s a colorless or light-yellow liquid chemical at room temperature.

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How are we exposed to benzene?

The most common way we’re exposed to benzene is by breathing it in the air.

About half of the average person’s exposure is from cigarette smoke, and another 20% comes from auto exhaust or industrial emissions.

Although it’s not used as an ingredient in beauty products, trace amounts of benzene were found in the aerosol spray from products including:

  • Deodorant sprays
  • Dry shampoos
  • Sunscreen sprays
  • Foot sprays

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Is there a link between benzene and cancer?

The short answer is yes. Numerous organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have determined that benzene causes cancer in humans.

According to studies, exposure to benzene can increase the risk of certain cancers by as much as 40%.

“Benzene causes problems in the blood,” explains Dr. Gorusu. She says research shows breathing in benzene for long periods can harm tissues that form blood cells, particularly the bone marrow.

How can I minimize my risk from benzene?

There are a number of ways to minimize your exposure to benzene, says Dr. Gorusu, including:

  • Avoid vehicle exhaust.
  • Minimize the use of commercial products that contain forms of “benzol,” which may have traces of benzene.
  • Steer clear of glues, paints and solvents that contain benzene.
  • Be aware of product recalls related to benzene.

And the best way to avoid benzene – quit smoking.

Research shows that smokers may have 10 times the level of benzene exposure than non-smokers. Smokers also get 90 percent of benzene exposure from smoking.

“Smokers take in much more benzene than non-smokers,” says Dr. Gorusu. “If you’re looking to quit smoking, this is another great reason to add to your list.”