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Does your Vitamin C lotion contain a dangerous ingredient?

Elana44 asks…I’ve recently heard that sodium benzoate when met with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can lead to cancer and damage DNA. Is it true?

The Beauty Brains respond:

Why is sodium benzoate in my cosmetics and can it really form benzene?

Sodium benzoate is a preservative that helps protect your creams and lotions from micro-organisms. This story has it roots back in 2005 or so when trace amounts of benzene where discovered in a variety of soft drinks. Benzene is a found in a variety of petrochemical products (like emissions from burning coal and oil, gasoline service stations, and motor vehicle exhaust) and in cigarette smoke. In this case the benzene was apparently being generated by the decarboxylation of the benzoate by ascorbic acid. This was of concern because benzene has been linked to several types of cancer.

The FDA investigated and found that most of the soft drinks had less benzene than is allowed in water. (The FDA sets limits for water but not other beverages.) The limit for water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). (Remember we’re all exposed to chemicals that at low levels are perfectly safe – the dose makes the poison, as they say.) The soft drink manufacturers that were exceeding the 10ppb decided to reformulate their products and those have now dropped to much lower levels. So for now, there doesn’t appear to be any concern for soft drinks. But what about cosmetics?

Definitive data is needed

Vitamin C lotions certainly can contain sodium benzoate. But since no one’s published data we don’t know if these cosmetics undergo the same reaction that occurs in beverages. Since we know that sugar inhibits the creation of benzene, it’s possible that similar ingredients in cosmetics (like sorbitol) could have the same effect.

Since no one has done a definitive study on cosmetics (that I’m aware of) we don’t know what the benzene levels are. (Perhaps individual manufacturers have tested some of their own products. If they have it would be nice if they would share that data.) It’s difficult to guess, but it seems doubtful there’s much to worry about. We know that the pH has to be below 2 for benzene formation to occur and not many cosmetic products are in that ranges. Even if small amounts are formed, there’s less risk to you than if you were ingesting the same amount (because it won’t all penetrate your skin.)

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Ok, lots of info here but what to do? It looks like that even under the worst conditions (with the highest level of benzene directly ingested into your body) the risk of cancer is still low compared to environmental exposure to this chemical. If you don’t find that reassuring enough then I see only one other option. Your only choice for true peace of mind is to avoid Vitamin C products that contain sodium or other benzoates. Fortunately this is easy enough to do by reading the ingredient list.

Do any of you Vitamin C fans out there have a recommendation for Elana? Leave a comment and help her out.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Allana Preston September 13, 2014, 10:00 pm

    I actually haven’t heard this concept that these two ingredients could lead to cancer. Thanks for taking the time to explain what benzoate is used for. I am never really sure what all the ingredients are in the products on the market.

  • Elana44 September 15, 2014, 8:18 am

    Dear Brains, thanks a lot for taking time to answer this question, i kind of feel more in peace with my current Vitamin C serum (though still at the back of my head lingers this thought of a change :)). By the way, I can’t seem to find the BB Forum, is it closed?

    • Randy Schueller September 15, 2014, 12:47 pm

      Hey Elana: We’re having some technical difficulties which keep crashing our website and interfering with the Forum. Hopefully we’ll be able to get the problem fixed soon!

      • Elana44 September 16, 2014, 7:18 am

        Ok, impatiently waiting for it to be fixed :)))

  • Ildiko September 15, 2014, 8:49 am

    I think Paula’s Choice Super Antioxidant is appropriate for this. But I do not think I will choose like this, dont find it so dangerous, agree with you. It is such a little amount and do not penetrate them all in the skin.
    For me it is very funny, when -for example- a girl dye her hair, maybe smoke cigarettes but looking for a paraben-free product because she is afraid of cancer. 😉
    Love your articles, still read all your articles! And I am translating how to pick a mild shampoo for my readers, they were very happy to get that articles, and asked me to translate. 🙂

    • Randy Schueller September 15, 2014, 12:48 pm

      Hi Ildiko! It’s good to hear from you again!!

    • Elana44 September 16, 2014, 7:17 am

      i personally don’t find it all so funny. smoking maybe yes. i don’t smoke btw. but seriously, no one dyes her twice a day. but if you are about to apply VitC serum twice a day, better find safest AND effective product the market can offer.

  • Karen September 16, 2014, 6:36 pm

    I like Skinceuticals formulations for Vitamin C serums but they sure are pricey. Due to that factor, a few years I decided to give a competitor a chance with theirs: Cosmetic Solutions C+E superantioxidant formula, sold at Amazon. I quickly realized that was a mistake. Borrowing from my son’s supply, I used Whatman ph indicator papers to see if the ph level matched what the manufacturer of it stated from my correspondence with them. It abysmally failed on the perimeters they claimed. As a result, I began having my son, with Chemistry and ChemE knowledge, make the serum for me using a DIY recipe that I found for purchase at smartskincare.com (it is suppose to mimic Skinceuticals version)…. but not before I left a lengthy and scathing review of the purchased product at Amazon. Boy, did I start a firestorm, too, with my one star review that is still going on. Head on over there to read through the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Find the product there first; then click on one star reviews. My review is authored as “KP”.) A few eventually removed their posts after I let my son respond back.

    But most importantly, I am happy with the DIY product that he creates for me but it’s only fair to say that he uses professional equipment to do so, FWIW. I store the extra solution since it makes a good amount in dark bottles in my refrigerator, purchased at their website, as well as the bottle I use daily to dispense the product. It has a nifty mechanism in it that pushes oxygen out of the bottle to reduce deterioration of it. Works great!

  • tracy January 25, 2016, 10:32 am

    Would Sodium Hyaluronate be an “avoid this” ingredient?

    • Randy Schueller January 25, 2016, 2:16 pm

      No it’a actually a good humectant which means it can bind moisture to your skin.

  • Alison Gross January 28, 2016, 2:41 pm

    I heard sodium ascorbyl phosphate is supposed to be a good version of Vitamin C to use. Do you agree?

  • Sunny December 11, 2019, 11:24 am


    Hope you are doing well.

    Does this information also applicable to Benzyl Alcohol ? Is there any chances of Benzyl Alcohol to form Benzene when mixed with Vitamin C.


    • Perry Romanowski December 11, 2019, 1:24 pm

      Probably not. Benzyl alcohol is rather stable.