Acne Cream Class Action Lawsuit Filed Over Benzene in Clean and Clear, Neutrogena

Independent researchers found high levels of benzene in acne creams containing benzoyl peroxide, including Clean and Clear and Neutrogena.

Johnson & Johnson faces a class action lawsuit over Clean & Clear and Neutrogena acne cream products, alleging that users were exposed to unsafe levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene, which has been found by an independent testing pharmacy.

The complaint (PDF) was filed by Alan Montenegro and Melissa Medina in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Western Division on March 8, seeking class action status for all consumers who purchased benzene-contaminated products manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.

The lawsuit was filed just weeks after testing conducted by the independent laboratory Valisure found that benzoyl peroxide (BPO), a common ingredient in acne treatments, is unstable and can form benzene levels hundreds of times higher than federally allowed limits. Following the discovery, the company filed a citizen’s petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), urging the agency to issue a recall and stop sales for all products containing the chemical.

Benzene Exposure Risks

Benzene is an industrial chemical that has been linked to the development of several fatal forms of cancer and other life-threatening health conditions, such as AML, Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Hairy Cell Leukemia (HCL), Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDL), Myelofibrosis and Myeloid Metaplasia, Aplastic Anemia and Thrombocytopenic Purpura.

Long-term side effects of benzene exposure have been proven to cause anemia, which is a condition that develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin.

The Valisure researchers found high levels of benzene inside of products containing benzoyl peroxide, and in the air around those products, showing that benzene can leak from product packaging and expose individuals to long-term benzene inhalation risks.

Lawsuit Over Benzene in Acne Treatments

In the complaint, plaintiff Alan Montenegro of California alleges he used Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Spot Gel from 2017 to 2021, after seeing advertisements with positive consumer reviews. He claims he would have never purchased the benzoyl peroxide containing products if he had known they were contaminated with benzene, or that it could degrade to benzene and expose him to high levels of the cancer-causing chemical.

While Montenegro has not sustained any known injuries from using the product, he seeks compensation for the economic loss he suffered as a result of Johnson & Johnson’s failure to warn consumers of the benzene exposure risk associated with some of its products.

Plaintiff Melissa Medina of Nevada raised similar allegations, claiming she used Clean & Clear Continuous Control Acne Cleanser from September 2020 to May 2023, and suffered economic damages as a result. She claims she was also unaware that the benzoyl peroxide containing product was contaminated with benzene, or that it could degrade further and expose her to even higher benzene levels. Like the other plaintiff, she claims she would not have purchased the product if Johnson & Johnson had adequately warned consumers.

Johnson & Johnson is accused of failing to test raw materials or finished products containing benzoyl peroxide before distributing them to consumers. The plaintiffs also claim the company failed to perform stability testing on final products to ensure they were stable and would not degrade or emit toxic byproducts, such as benzene, the lawsuit claims.

“Although the BPO Products have been found to have benzene, Defendant never listed benzene among its Products’ ingredients, or anywhere on the Products’ labels, containers, advertising or on Defendant’s websites,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant never warned anyone the Products had benzene or were at risk of benzene contamination.”

According to the complaint, Johnson & Johnson has been aware of benzene contamination in several products since at least 2021. Another chemical analysis conducted by Valisure found dangerously high benzene levels in several Johnson & Johnson products, some of which contained three times the FDA recommended limit. The findings resulted in an Aveeno and Neutrogena sunscreen recall, which impacted all five of the manufacturer’s aerosol sunscreen product lines.

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Sunscreen Recall Lawsuits

Leukemia, lymphoma and other cancer may be caused by benzene in Neutrogena, Aveeno, Coppertone and other sunscreens.

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In 2022, the FDA published guidance urging manufacturers to test products containing ingredients derived from hydrocarbons, such as benzoyl peroxide and other substances obtained from petroleum that are at risk of benzene contamination. The FDA reminded drug manufacturers to test raw materials and final products for benzene contamination before releasing them to consumers, and required removal of any products with benzene levels over 2ppm.

The lawsuit claims manufacturers were required to report benzene contamination to the FDA to issue a product recall, but Johnson & Johnson ignored the testing guidance and continued to sell products containing BPO without testing for benzene or warning consumers of benzene exposure risks, especially for products that are regularly exposed to heat and can degrade to cancer-causing benzene.

The complaint seeks damages for all consumers who purchased and used the products in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington.

Benzene Exposure Lawsuits

The complaint may be the first of many such lawsuits filed over benzene in acne cream products. A number of other manufacturers already face individual claims and class action lawsuits over high levels of benzene found in aerosol spray products sold in recent years, including sunscreens, deodorants, and antiperspirant sprays.

Some of the lawsuits stem from a massive sunscreen recall issued in 2021, after testing revealed dangerous benzene levels in Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreen products.

Johnson & Johnson faced at least eight class action lawsuits over benzene exposure from spray sunscreens. The court issued final approval fpr a Neutrogena and Aveeno spray sunscreen class action settlement in February 2023. Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $1.75 million in vouchers to consumers who purchased benzene-tainted products, which were not included in the 2021 recall.

In October 2023, a federal judge granted approval to a $3.1 million Batiste dry shampoo settlement agreement, which included a $2.5 million cash fund and $600,000 in vouchers for consumers who purchased the benzene-contaminated shampoo products. The settlement resolved a similar class action lawsuit filed against the manufacturer, Church & Dwight, Co. over benzene contamination in its dry shampoo spray products. The lawsuit stemmed from a Unilever dry shampoo recall issued in October 2022, after elevated benzene levels were detected from the spray can propellant used by the manufacturer.

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