Is Butylated Hydroxyanisole Safe or Carcinogenic?

When you hear the term “butylated,” perhaps the first thing that pops in your mind is “dangerous chemical” or “preservative.” However, most people do not really know much about butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) – its purpose and health hazards. 

Thus, the best thing to do is to research the facts surrounding butylated hydroxyanisole and how it affects health.

What Is Butylated Hydroxyanisole Used For?

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a preservative that commonly found in baked foods, cereals, animal feeds, cosmetics, packaging, packed snacks, gum, processed meat, butter, beer, petroleum products, rubber, wax food packaging, and dehydrated vegetables. 

Butylated hydroxyanisole is used:

  • As a yeast defoaming agent
  • To avoid fat from going rancid (the breakdown of fats into a fatty acid)
  • To preserve the flavor, color, and odor of food

You may have probably noticed that BHA is present in our everyday products. Wherever you are right now, for sure, you’ll see one product that contains BHA. But is it safe? Is it a carcinogen? If you want to find out more, keep on reading, and you will be shocked by the facts about BHA.

Image Source: Harmony Chem India


BHA is a pale yellow or whitish waxy solid substance with a faintly pleasant odor. BHA is a potent antioxidant that helps increase the shelf life of food products.

It is responsible for preventing the oxidation of oils and fats (the oxidation of fats and oils leads to rancidity or spoilage of food products). 


According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Small amounts of BHA  is safe for use in food

It may be beneficial in preserving the foods we consume, but does this substance provide nutritional or health benefits? We can absorb BHA; it binds with and gets absorbed by the cells in the body, thus it is important to know whether we need to stop ingesting this substance.

It is similar to other antioxidants that can neutralize free radicals in the tissues. It can be beneficial in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other illnesses. 

Several studies have demonstrated that the consumption of large amounts of BHA may negatively impact the human body. It was also shown to have an interaction with steroid hormones and hormonal birth control methods.

Image Source: Food Additives


The key to avoiding or controlling your BHA consumption is to determine the products that contain this substance. If you want to know if a product contains BHA, it is best to check the product ingredients. To give you an idea, here is a comprehensive list of products that typically contains BHA.

  • Animal oils
  • Vegetable oils
  • Baked foods
  • Fried foods
  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Meat
  • Cereals
  • Sweets
  • Potato chips
  • Snacks or biscuits
  • Nut or any nut products
  • Dehydrated potato
  • Flavoring agents or condiments
  • Processed meat (e.g., sausage, ham, or hotdog)
  • Poultry and other meat products
  • Beverages
  • Glazed fruits
  • Chewing gum or bubble gum
  • Active dry yeast
  • Defoaming agents for yeast and beet sugar
  • Wax coatings in food packaging
  • Cosmetics (e.g., lipstick, lip balms, eyeshadow)
  • Petroleum products
  • Medicines: anti-cholesterol, isotretinoin (for acne treatment)

Butylated Hydroxyanisole Side Effects

BHA has been used worldwide as a preservative since 1947. It changed how the food industry serves their food to the public. Everything can now be packed, preserved, and stored on the shelf for long periods of time without worrying about spoilage.

Since foods can now be preserved, there is no need to stock your refrigerator with fresh supplies all the time. Although it is convenient, but do the advantages outweigh its negative side effects?

The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption tagged BHA as a Category 1 priority chemical after years and years of research. This is because they linked long-term and large consumptions of BHA-containing products to the disruption of the human body’s hormonal function. The International Agency for Research for Cancer tagged BHA as a possible cancer-causing agent. 

Image Source: Safe Cosmetics

Is BHA a Carcinogen?

Currently, there is insufficient information on the carcinogenicity of BHA. There have been some studies and research which showed the link between BHA and cancer, but more evidence is needed. 

Side Effects in Animals

As mentioned earlier, there is limited evidence that BHA can cause cancer to human beings. However, the studies in animals like rats, hamsters, dogs, and even fish are alarming. Researchers conducted experiments wherein the animals were fed with BHA-containing food.

Over time, the rats developed malignant and benign stomach tumors. The fish administered with high doses of BHA developed liver cancer. If BHA can affect these little animals, how much more a human being with higher more carcinogen exposure from our surroundings? 

Side Effects in Humans

Perhaps you have noticed that a majority of the BHA-containing food products in the list above are instant foods.

Instant foods are generally considered junk foods; these foods contain high amounts of monosodium glutamate (MSG or too many preservatives). Processed foods and fast foods also contain large amounts of preservatives. Although as of now, we are unable to confirm that BHA can cause cancer, BHA still has disadvantages and negative effects on the human body.

At this point, the issue is not just about BHA-rich products, but it is more about the instant foods that give us an “instant life”.These instant foods are harmful and therefore must be avoided as much as possible.

Image Source: Engin Akyurt in Pexels

Is Butylated Hydroxyanisole Safe for Topical Use?

BHA is also a major component of cosmetic products. Is BHA safe when applied to the skin? For the record, the U.S. FDA deemed BHA-containing cosmetics as safe. Due to the lack of supporting studies, we are uncertain if cosmetics containing BHA has negative adverse effects.

But have you noticed the emergence and increasing popularity of organic beauty products? Nowadays you can see 100% organic skin care and cosmetic products on the shelves. This is because companies now cater to people’s preferences which includes avoiding BHA and other harmful chemicals.

Beauty experts listed chemical compounds that should not be found in your everyday make-up, such as: formaldehyde, synthetic fragrance, sodium lauryl sulfate, parabens, and BHA/BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene). These products are tagged as possible skin allergens and are also classified as human carcinogens. 

This is the reason why you cannot blame other people looking for organic alternatives when it comes to beauty products. Once your skin is exposed to these strong chemicals, there may be irreversible side effects. 

Image Source: ER Care24

Hazards and Diseases caused by BHA

BHA is rapidly absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract of both animals and humans. It is then metabolized and excreted by the body through the feces and urine. Though there have been claims that BHA is genotoxic to humans, further studies are needed to confirm this. 

As of the moment, here are the claims on the hazards of BHA and associated diseases found in animals and humans. 

  • Forestomach of rodents: A 1982 experiment showed that large amounts of BHA in the diet of rats and hamsters causes tumors in their forestomach (most especially in the squamous and epithelial tissue of the rodents’ forestomach. 
  • Digestive tract of humans: Since humans do not have a forestomach like rodents, the results therefore becomes irrelevant in relation to BHA’s hazards and diseases to humans. However, squamous and epithelial cells are found in other parts of the human digestive tract. Further studies are ongoing regarding the effects of BHA on humans. 
  • Effects on the esophagus and stomach: Chronic exposure to BHA may result in neoplastic and hyperplastic changes in the esophagus and stomach. During the experimental production of the squamous cell carcinoma in the non-glandular stomach, it was found that the progression of focal hyperplasia might be caused by high doses of BHA. It then transformed into hyperplasia, dysplasia, papilloma, and finally, carcinoma. However, the link between low doses of BHA and the formation of non-glandular stomach carcinoma is still inconclusive. 
  • Effects on human cells: Low doses of BHA in the human diet were not found to be carcinogenic. Healthy cells did not mutate into cancer cells.
  • Effects on the human hormones: BHA was found to affect human hormones, this includes the primary female sex hormone. BHA was responsible for the suppression of the male sex hormones. Since it affects most reproductive hormones in the body, hormone therapy for birth control will also be affected.
  • Skin allergen: Skincare products or cosmetics that contain high doses of BHA is not recommended for all skin types. It was found that BHA may cause allergies to sensitive skin, especially the face. 
  • Acceptable limits: At present, there is no public health concern on the usage of BHA. The BHA levels found in products are at permitted levels. However, strict monitoring still needs to be done to avoid high amounts of BHA in food. Thus, we must be vigilant and do our part in ensuring that BHA in food are within acceptable limits (in accordance to FDA guidelines).
Image Source: Quang Nguyen Vinh in Pexels

How to Reduce or Avoid the Use of Butylated Hydroxyanisole?

If you have a family member or relative who has died of cancer, then your goal is to prevent cancer at all costs. If you believe that BHA is a potential carcinogen and would want to reduce and avoid exposure to this chemical, then you have two options: control and abstinence. Here are some tips you can do to lessen your exposure to BHA; it won’t be easy, but it is possible. 

  • Suggested cosmetic use: Skincare products containing BHA can come in contact with the eyes, skin, hair, nails, nasal and vaginal mucosa. Even with one application of lipstick, BHA can be ingested through the mouth. Usage of skincare products containing BHA is acceptable if you use it only a few times a week. The BHA can stay on the skin for a few days. 
  • For foods containing BHA: It is safe to consume small BHA concentrations (not exceeding 0.02% of the total oil or fat content of the particular food). Also, always remember to limit the consumption of BHA-containing food. It all boils down to abstinence or control of instant foods. These processed or pre-packaged foods not only contain BHA but other harmful chemicals as well. In addition, these instant foods just contain empty calories, which means that the food have no nutritional value (no vitamins and minerals). You can choose safer food alternatives, such as those foods that contain vitamin E as a preservative. It would even be better if you go for foods that do not contain any preservatives.

Bottom Line

With our busy schedule and the hustle and bustle of daily life, we cannot help but depend on instant foods that contain BHA. If you want to reduce or avoid BHA, it is definitely possible but it won’t be easy. You need to choose fresh foods and take the time to prepare them. Going organic might be difficult but it is worth it.

Indeed, there are not enough studies to support that BHA causes cancer. But do we have to wait for conclusive studies before it’s too late? Cancer does not develop overnight; it develops over time because of our lifestyle. 

Remember that cancer do not have a single definite cause – just risk factors that are known to contribute to cancer formation (plus of course, your genes). Always try to avoid habits and foods that are potentially bad for you. Incorporate fresh and organic foods into your diet and always maintain a healthy lifestyle

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