Just as families in the US look forward to spending more time outdoors this summer, comes the unwelcome news that a number of popular sunscreens have been shown to contain benzene, a chemical known to cause leukemia and other blood cancers. Benzene is mainly used as a solvent in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and its use is strictly regulated.
According to recent news reports, traces of benzene have been found in dozens of popular sunscreens and after-sun products. In tests of nearly 300 sprays and lotions, the cancer-causing chemical was found in 78 products, including some formulations sold by Neutrogena, Banana Boat and CVS.
Tests showed that the highest level of benzene — 6.26 parts per million (ppm) — was detected in a batch of Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Weightless Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100. Two different batches of the same sunscreen, each with an SPF of 70, contain 5.96 and 5.76 ppm of the chemical. Sun Bum’s Cool Down Gel contained the next highest amount at 5.33 ppm.
Valisure, the online pharmacy and lab that conducts the tests, has filed a petition with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to immediately recall sunscreens containing benzene. Sunscreens and after-sun lotions are classified as cosmetics and are generally subject to FDA regulations.
“We know benzene exposure is associated with blood cancers such as leukemia,” says Michael Kasper, MD, director of radiation oncology for Lynn Cancer Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, part of Baptist Health South Florida. “What we don’t know is how it got into more than a quarter of the sunscreens tested.”
Michael Kasper, MD, director of radiation oncology for Lynn Cancer Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital
It could be the result of contamination in the manufacturing process, says Dr. Casper. “Or it could be a naturally occurring breakdown of other chemicals in those sunscreens, such as avobenzone, oxybenzone and homosalate.” These chemicals are related to benzene, he says, and although they are FDA-approved for use in sunscreens and other products, a number of manufacturers are now excluding them from their formulations.
Either way, says Dr. Kasper, benzene is not an ingredient that should be there, and consumers should educate themselves about the different types of sunscreens available and the ingredients they contain.
“Not using sunscreen isn’t really an option — especially here in South Florida, where we’re out all year.” But, he warns, not all sunscreens are created equal, and consumers need to know the difference.
“With chemical-based sunscreens, the ingredients are absorbed through the skin and form a chemical barrier that protects you from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays,” says Dr. Casper. “Mineral-based sunscreens, on the other hand, are not absorbed through the skin. They contain either titanium dioxide or zinc dioxide, which act as a physical barrier against UV rays.”
Benzene contamination has not been found in mineral-based sunscreens and Dr. Kasper says these products are absolutely safe to use.
What about old sunscreens that people have had in their homes for years – are they safe? Conventional wisdom holds that chemical-based sunscreens break down over time, diminishing their effectiveness, says Dr. Casper. Now you have one more reason to throw them away, he says. “If the benzene contamination actually occurs as a result of a breakdown of other ingredients, then I’d say yes, it certainly would make sense to throw out your old chemical-based sunscreens.”
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer affects more people each year than breast or prostate cancer combined, and nearly 10,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every day. Yet says Dr. Kasper believes that skin cancer is highly preventable – if you take active steps every day to limit your sun exposure.
“Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” advises Dr. Casper. “On a summer day in South Florida, the sun’s rays can still be quite strong even at 5 p.m., so be careful if you’re out during the day.” If you must be outside, he recommends using a mineral-based sunscreen and wearing cool, lightweight clothing with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 40 or 50.
Sun safety is especially important for children and teens, according to Dr. Casper. “Studies show that 90 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure occurs before age 20, so make sure you cover the kids.”
Editor’s Note: A full list of sunscreens and aftersun lotions found to contain trace amounts of benzene can be found on pages 12-15 of the Valisure petition to the FDA.