- The chemical benzene, is a known carcinogen.
- The benzene appears to be a result of manufacturing problems.
- The benefits of using sunscreen likely outweighs the risks from benzene.
June 11, 2021 -- Just before Memorial Day, online pharmacy and lab Valisure announced that its testing had found benzene, a known carcinogen, in batches of 78 widely available sunscreen and after-sun products. The company has petitioned the FDA to recall these products, which include batches from Neutrogena, Banana Boat, CVS Health, and other top brands. More than three quarters of the products are sprays.
It’s important to note that benzene is not an ingredient in sunscreen, and Valisure's petition suggests that the findings are a result of contamination somewhere in the manufacturing process.
Still, if benzene-contaminated sunscreen proves to be a widespread problem, "the benzene amounts can add up to a significant chronic exposure over a lifetime,” says Christopher G. Bunick, MD, associate professor of dermatology at Yale University in New Haven, CT.
"We're asking our patients to put sunscreen on from 6 months of age, telling them to do it their entire life, their whole body, multiple times a day," he adds. Go here to learn more about benzene.
In the Valisure statement announcing the findings, Bunick, who is also quoted in the petition, said that "it is critical that regulatory agencies address benzene contamination in sunscreens, and all topical medications at the manufacturing and final product level, so that all individuals feel safe using sunscreen products."
"This isn't a sunscreen issue, it's a manufacturing issue," said Adam Friedman, MD, professor and chief of dermatology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.. "We don't want those things to be blurred."
"The FDA takes seriously any safety concerns raised about products we regulate, including sunscreen. While the agency evaluates the submitted citizen petition, we will continue to monitor the sunscreen marketplace and manufacturing efforts to help ensure the availability of safe sunscreens for U.S. consumers,” a FDA spokesperson said when asked to comment on Valisure's findings
Both Johnson & Johnson, Neutrogena's parent company, and Banana Boat issued statements reiterating that benzene is not an ingredient in their products.
Assessing the Risks
There is a risk of patients taking away the wrong message from these findings.
"People already have ambivalence about sunscreen, and this is just going to make that worse," Friedman says. He pointed out that benzene is present in car exhaust, second-hand smoke, and elsewhere. Inhalation exposure has been the primary focus of toxicology investigations, as has exposure from things such as drinking contaminated drinking water – not via topical application.
"We don't know how effectively [benzene] gets through the skin, if it gets absorbed systemically, and how that then behaves downstream," he says.
On the other hand, ultraviolet radiation is a well-established carcinogen. Avoiding sunscreen over benzene concerns could prove more harmful than exposure to trace amounts of benzene itself.
"Just because those particular products do pose a risk, that doesn't erase the message that sunscreens are safe and should be used," Bunick said. "It's not mutually exclusive."
And then there's the fact that the benzene contamination appears to be limited.. "The majority of products we tested -- over 200 of them --had no detectable amounts of benzene, and uncontaminated sunscreen should certainly continue to be used," David Light, CEO of Valisure says
Bunick says he expects the “number one” question patients will soon have is what sunscreen he recommends.
"The answer should be to pick a sunscreen that we know wasn't contaminated. Reassure your patient the ingredients themselves are effective and safe, and that's not what's leading to the contamination,” he explains
Friedman agrees. "We need to be mindful. Dermatologists need to be armed with the facts in order to counsel patients: Sunscreen is still a very important, effective, and a safe, scientifically-based way to prevent the harmful effects of the sun, in addition to things like sun protective clothing and seeking shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m."
Though Valisure’s findings may be alarming, there is one silver lining, according to Bunick.
"The consumer, the public should feel reassured this report is out there. It shows that someone's watching out. That's an important safety message: These things aren't going undetected."