In the early days of pandemic, Kayla Ridgely, a nurse in Queen Creek, Arizona, stocked up on hand sanitizers she thought was safe because it was marketed as plant-based, with a brand name that emphasized that messaging: Artnaturals, a company best known for its essential oils and hair products.
But earlier this year, Ridgley came across a study showing that Artnaturals had sold bottles that tested positive for benzene, a solvent made from petroleum that is not allowed to be used in consumer products because it is carcinogenic.
The lab that made findings, Valisure, had submitted a citizen petition in March asking the FDA to take action on Artnaturals and other hand sanitizer products. It also offered on its website to test more samples free of charge to anyone else who would send their sanitizer in. Ridgely submitted hers and received results in April that it was contaminated with benzene at levels of thousands of times above the EPA’s benzene limits and more than six times above the FDA’s temporary guidance during the pandemic allowing trace amounts of benzene in over-the-counter drugs.
Walmart didn't reply to Ridgley's concerns and a public post she left on Artnaturals' Facebook page warning of the test results was responded to in a thread threatening to sue publications that wrote about the findings. It took another six months for the FDA to publish a notice that it had found "unacceptable levels of benzene" in Artnaturals hand sanitizer. But they could not issue a recall. That's because regulators lack authority over over-the-counter-drug products like hand sanitizers. The FDA can only pressure companies to do so voluntarily.
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Artnaturals continues to insist that its sanitizers are not contaminated with benzene. “Out of an abundance of caution, Artnaturals retested all alcohol products and confirmed that those items are free from impurities and are safe to use,” Joseph Nourollah, the CEO and founder of Artnaturals, said in an emailed statement to NBC News.