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What Is It: BHT

April 3, 2013 Reviewed by Marta 26 Comments

There's nothing like being accused of ill-informed scaremongering (as I was in an irate comment posted the other day by a somewhat ironically named reader called 'Serenity') to send me foraging on the internet. I don't pretend to be well-informed, but I do take scaremongering seriously and try very hard not to, although willingly admit that I sometimes feel as though I am treading a fine line.

Serenity was reacting to a post in which I said that the preservative BHT is "used in embalming fluid, it was banned in baby foods by the FDA but is otherwise widely used in foods and cosmetics. It is banned in all food in the UK based on studies that it is carcinogenic (other studies suggest it might combat cancer - so at best BHT seems controversial)." Serenity countered that there is no evidence that BHT causes cancer. So I went back to my research drawing board.

Butylated hydroxytoulene has a remarkable research history. Since the 1970s, vast quantities of rodents have been sacrificed in the quest to decide whether it is friend or foe. This was - and still is - an important question; by the mid 1990s butylated hydroxytoulene was one of the (if not the most) common food and cosmetic preservatives in use. And some people started to get worried about it.

Business Week magazine in 1995 reported: "Several additives are suspected carcinogens. Take butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). Food companies use these similar chemical substances to prevent spoilage in foods with oil or shortening and to preserve many breakfast cereals (from Total to Quaker Instant Oatmeal), enriched rice products, and dried soups. Repeated studies have shown that BHA and BHT increase the risk of cancer as well as accumulate in body tissue, cause liver enlargement, and retard the rate of DNA synthesis and thus, cell development. However, one study, released in 1994, suggests these same additives may actually retard cancer development because of their antioxidant properties."

Business Week wasn't quite right. In turns out that there has been more than one study claiming that BHT retards cancer. I found two.

I have marshalled as much evidence as I practically can (the research archives are pretty extensive) and I think this is a fair representation of the for and against data. By the way, BHT has a close relative called BHA and many of the tests I found were conducted on both.

BHT prevents or retards cancer:

In 1999, a Taiwanese study claimed to be "the first demonstration that synthetic phenolic antioxidants decrease the N-acetylation of carcinogens and formation of DNA-carcinogen."

In 1991, GM Williams conducted a study and said: "These results suggest that the chemoprevention by BHT of cancer resulting from low-level long-term carcinogen exposure may be achieved at doses that do not produce adverse effects."

BHT prevents cancer but at the cost of causing it:

Not everyone agrees with Mr Williams. In 1996, the University of Hamburg in Germany examined the available published evidence and concluded that even though BHT can be anticarcinogenic, this is outweighed by its cancer causing tendencies:

"Specific toxic effects to the lung have been observed with BHT.... BHT induces liver tumours in long-term experiments. Because there is no indication of genotoxicity of BHT, all published findings agree with the fact that BHA and BHT are tumour promoters. In contrast to BHA and BHT, vitamin E is not carcinogenic. On the other hand, all three antioxidants have also anticarcinogenic properties. The intake of the necessary high doses as for these effects are, however, contraindicated with BHA and BHT because of their carcinogenic effects."

It is worth noting that the Hamburg team also thought that levels used in cosmetics were safe: "The present overview concludes that the concentrations of BHA and BHT nowadays used in food, drugs and cosmetics are probably harmless. In addition, vitamin E can also be used in higher doses without the occurrence of adverse effects."

BHT is carcinogenic, period

The number of studies showing that BHT is carcinogenic is impressive and I can only cite a few of them here. In high doses, BHT had a toxic effect on liver, lung, and kidney and also on the blood coagulation mechanism. It must be said, however, that all these tests seem have involved high doses of the stuff. For example, a 1988 study in Sweden on BHT and BHA concluded. "Both antioxidants were observed to be cytotoxic in a concentration-dependent manner at concentrations ranging from 100 to 750 microM."

A 2000 study said: "use of BHA as a chemopreventive agent against cancer in human has been challenged by the observation that BHA may exert toxic effect in some tissues of animals".

According to AM Malkinson of the Crisp Data Base National Institutes Of Health in 1999"...The food additive, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), encourages the development of tumors from previously initiated cells."

BHT is not carcinogenic

In 1979 study on rats was published by the National Institute for Cancer Research concluded that it is not carcinogenic. And GM Williams was sticking with his story in 2000 with a study for New York Medical College: "We conclude that BHA and BHT pose no cancer hazard and, to the contrary, may be anticarcinogenic at current levels of food additive use".

A Kuwait study found no evidence of carcinogenity but also that BHT isn't much fun for the liver: "BHT resulted in a significant increase in liver weight. The liver cells presented gradual vacuolization, cytoplasmic disintegration, "moth-eaten" appearance, ballooning degeneration, hepatocellular necrosis." A Swedish study also found that BHT damages the liver.

Most scientists tend to begin their reports noting that BHT is cancer causing. However, their studies then go on to show that the cancer causing effects are dose dependent. At low doses, BHT has been demonstrated to be safe. For example, A 1993 Japanese study was conducted on three generations of mice with BHT at 0.015%. "The dose levels of BHT in this study showed little adverse effect on reproductive and neurobehavioural parameters on mice.

BHT does not retard cancer

One of the most recent studies of BHT was conducted in 2006 in Argentina, expressly to test the theory that BHT retards cancer. The tests were conducted on hamsters and the researchers concluded that BHT did not stop cancer but in fact made it worse:

"Results obtained showed that BHT did not decrease the chromosomal damage induced by radiation in any consistent fashion. On the contrary, in cells post-treated with 5.0 µg/ml of BHT the yield of chromosomal aberrations increased in several experimental points."

In all the studies I consulted, BHT seems to have been administered orally. I didn't find any tests that have looked into its safety if used topically.

  • January 11, 2019

    by Cathy

    So funny that people think the FDA is 100% trustworthy, they are not.

  • March 19, 2016

    by Marta

    Hi Eva, I looked up Prop 65 and you are correct. BHA is listed, but BHT is not. I have removed the reference in the post and thank you for the correction.

  • March 19, 2016

    by Eva

    Boon is right. BHT is not listed as a carcinogen by the state of California. BHA is, however they are not the same thing. As you can see by the responses below, BHT has several beneficial medical uses.

    The study Cara linked concludes with:

    "BHT applied to the skin, however, appears to remain in the skin or pass through only slowly and does not produce systemic exposures to BHT or its metabolites seen with oral exposures. Although there were only limited studies that evaluated the effect of BHT on the skin, the available studies, along with the case literature, demonstrate no significant irritation, sensitization, or photosensitization. Recognizing the low concentration at which this ingredient is currently used in cosmetic formulations, it was concluded that BHT is safe as used in cosmetic formulations."

  • January 7, 2016

    by Cara

    "In addition to liver and kidney effects, BHT applied to the skin was associated with toxic effects in lung tissue" Here is a reference to an unbiased study (non-industry funded)

  • October 5, 2015

    by Mel

    I am 80 years old and in good health. I have used BHT 250 mg daily for 44 years. This was combined with vitamin C to suppress herpes simplex with 100% success.

  • March 3, 2015

    by Jerry

    I have been using BHT as an antioxidant for years at 250 mg per day. I am 73 years old and have not yet died from either cancer nor liver disease. BHT is a very good antioxidant. I do admit the toluene part of BHT is scary; however, if you study free radicals, you can understand that they are causing cancer, causing us to age, and killing us slowly but surely. In particular, free radicals are released as an accidental byproduct of oxidation in mitochondria, thereby damaging the DNA of mitochondria and also attacking the double bonds in the fatty acids in cell membranes, particularly those surrounding mitochondria. The damage to mitochondria causes a reduction in the production of ATP. Eventually the cells die from lack of ATP (energy). Another good antioxidant is C60 (Bucky balls). BHT and C60 are oil soluble and can get into the cell membrane to protect the fatty acids from oxidation by free radicals. Most natural antioxidants are water soluble and cannot get into the cell membranes, nor pass through the cell membrane of a mitochondrion, to get where it is needed at the site of free radical production.
    However, I don't doubt that too much BHT or C60 may be harmful.

  • June 7, 2014

    by Marta

    Hi "cayotetruth". I do mention the FDA's position and appreciate the dose dependency of all the claims. Indeed, this article is largely concerned with how the issue is so controversial because the research comes to conclusions based on different concentrations. Therefore, I have tried to show there is research that claims BHT is safe and other research that claims it is unsafe. Those various sources are quoted in the article and concentrations used in their studies.

  • June 6, 2014

    by coyotetruth

    Whoever wrote this should really do their due diligence. For BHT to have any "ill" effects it must be taken in well over the 250 to 1000th dosage. This is a FACT. Please read the FDA reports for starters. Please do not put scare tactics out on the Web especially when you are of a self proclaimed uninformed opion.

  • October 4, 2013

    by John

    I have been taking 350 mg of BHT for 30 years to prevent herpes fever blisters of the lip. Have not had any blisters since and all blood work including liver levels have been normal.

  • April 26, 2013

    by Tom Blalock

    I have been taking 1 gram (1000 mg) of BHT daily for the last 37 years. Am now 75 years old, in perfect health and look at least 7 years younger.

  • March 5, 2013

    by Marta

    Hi Boon, I believe it is, CAS # 25013-16-5

  • March 5, 2013

    by Boon

    BHT is not listed as a carcinogen in the California state (prod65 list).

  • November 2, 2012

    by James

    My meant 2K MG per day not 2 MG.

  • November 2, 2012

    by James

    I have been taking 2 MG of BHT for the last thirty years and I have fequent blood test about every six months. I am completelhy healthy an look about 15 years younger than my current 64 years. I take BHT as a life extension material and will continue to do so as I believe that it is not only protecting me from herpes and is also protecting me from HIV. HIV is a lipid code virus and while there has been no human test anyone with common sense should be using it as potential line of defense. Type in the words BHT and HIV on your browser for more information.

  • July 5, 2012

    by Rich


    Naphthalenes are used for things like moth repellent, soil fumigant and lavatory deodorant. Naphthalenes are not antioxidants.

    If they used vitamin E for rust protection that doesn't mean that taking vitamin E means eating rust.

  • July 5, 2012

    by Rich

    BHT is an antioxidant in food and at the cellular level.

    Please search Biophysicist Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos' A MITOTIC THEORY with a user friendly explanation by her partner, ER physician Dr. Valander Turner, both from Royal Perth Hospital in Perth, Australia . It was conceived in the mid 1970's and written by 1980 and subsequently submitted and accepted in a peer review journal, Medical Hypothesis. It contains no less than 149 references dating back to 1911. It's quite compelling.

    It takes a giant leap back from this fixation on an array of molecules, proteins and DNA and looks that the cell itself and it's cyclic contraction and reduction of Myosin and Actin proteins which are regulated by SH Thiol cycles. This theory has far reaching consequences. Every cell of the body is regulated by this charge exchange between Myosin and Actin. Each cell has a different thio cycle which defines not only disease and health but also structure and function, cell metabolism etc...

    Cancer itself is a specific mitotic thiol cycle that can be prevented with antioxidants from food. Only small doses of supplementnts are recommended (they have to be suited to the level of redox) for prevention because high antioxidant intake can cause oxidation. Cancer can be treated with high doses of antioxidants or oxidants. BHT is sighted as one of the antioxidants that has been researched and concluded to be a possible useful anti-cancer supplement.

    If you are confused like I was it would serve well to read the theory, even in you have only a little scientific background

  • May 18, 2012

    by parhat

    BHT is used in antiaging in Rats in the beginning of Free Radical by Dr. Harmon and found to increase longevity in mice. It is used to kill certain types of virus, such as herpes, and AIDS, one the very few substances that kill them. The stomach cancer is reported early in the 70s in U.S. the the Japanese, due to BHT use.

  • March 9, 2012

    by amy fiorito

    Is bht still banned from use in the U.K. ? I have a severe allergy to bht and am traveling soon to the U.K. I am hoping to be able to eat like a normal person while I am there. Thank you if anyone knows for sure.

  • February 20, 2012

    by Mike Flenniken

    In all fairness to Noah, I count 12 times where the word "study" is used and only 2 of them are linked to references. My browser is working fine.

  • February 3, 2012

    by Marta

    Thank you for your comment Noah. There are links to the studies - the word "study" is hyperlinked several times. Perhaps you should try a different browser if you are having difficulty seeing them.

  • February 3, 2012

    by Noah Blough

    Concerning your BHT stance I wish you would supply links to the anti-BHT studies. I want to read more, but you have nothing about it's being used for herpes. I just see a lot of quotes without any substantial back-up. But you are like most health blogs. Weak on the facts.

  • September 12, 2011

    by corrozia

    It seems a lot of people think only about cancer or hormones when they think about a preservative. It can be just a poison(toxic); that is why bacteria don't eat the product any more. We know we can survive small doses of poison, but it would effect a liver and shorten a life. The term "antioxidant" sounds always very positive. First of all antioxidant is a very big group of substances used in different industries. They prevent underlying layers of material from corrosion. Like pipes, etc. Most of them are very toxic. A lot of naphthalenes are antioxidants and very toxic to live creatures. Some substances with antioxidant properties happen to be our food ingredients and/or not toxic. They do the same for us - protect us from free radicals harmful for the body. I am just saying -if something is an antioxidant, it doesn't mean you can eat it or it will be good for you. But it for sure would prevent cream from going bad. It would prevent oxidation of different substances in the cream and if it toxic for bacteria/fungi it would prevent them from growing there. But if something is toxic to one sort of live creatures, it can (and will) be toxic to us.

  • May 3, 2011

    by Scully

    Good article, very informative. Additional links would have been nice but for the truth seekers like myself I followed up on key phrases to clarify my questions.
    I am officially done with this chemical.

  • October 25, 2010

    by Skin So Soft by Avon Review | Moisturizing Bath Oil Repels Mosquito’s « BeautyNib

    [...] To read more about BHT check out this site: [...]

  • June 2, 2009

    by Mike the Geek

    Search BHT at PubMed, the NIH's public journal search engine. BHT is benign at even very high levels. However, an old toxicology proverb says that "everything is a poison, it's just a matter of dose and route of administration." Instead of worrying about BHT, look at the PCB's and dioxins in those fish oil extracts.

  • April 12, 2009

    by Vague

    way to vague, no sources, not lnks to reports, 1993 Japanese study was conducted on three generations of mice with BHT at 0.015%. whish is = to what does in humas?

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