What to Know About Benzene in Sunscreen — and How to Avoid It

Your Sunscreen Might Have a Carcinogen In It, According to a New Report

Get the downlow on which sunscreens dermatologists want recalled.
By Rachel Nussbaum
Jun 02, 2021 @ 8:00 pm
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Heading into the summer months, it's more important than ever to have a sunscreen on hand that you trust. But as a report from independent laboratory Valisure revealed last week, 27 percent of the sunscreen and after-sun products it tested contained benzene, a carcinogen — and unsettlingly, many of them are household names.

Valisure, a pharmacy that batch tests medication before it reaches consumers, tested 294 different batches of sun care products from 69 different companies (find the full results here, on page 12). It found that 78 of the samples tested contained benzene, a substance that the CDC, World Health Organization, and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines as a carcinogen via inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, and skin and/or eye contact.

The NIOSH sets benzene's recommended occupational exposure limit at .1 parts per million (ppm), which makes Valisure's findings of 2 ppm or higher in some sunscreens, from Neutrogena, Sun Bum, and CVS Health, concerning. Meanwhile, the FDA sets a recommended limit of 2 ppm per day — but according to board-certified dermatologist Heather Rogers, any exposure to benzene is worse than none, and there is an accumulative effect of being exposed to benzene, meaning multiple exposures leads to more DNA damage. 

She adds that benzene is associated with the development of blood cancers like leukemia, as well as cancers of the lungs, GI tract, liver, ovaries and breasts, so if you spot your sunscreen on the lists of affected products, stop using it. And while the CDC notes that benzene is "widely distributed in the environment," that's not exactly cause for comfort. "Benzene is a well-studied and well-known carcinogen in humans. It has been shown to be linked to blood cancers even when its levels in products were in trace levels of parts per million," board-certified dermatologist Emily P. Gerson tells InStyle

Intensifying her concern is the FDA's 2020 finding that six sunscreen ingredients — avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate — were absorbed through the skin and into the body, resulting in measurable blood levels. Given that and Valisure's discoveries, both Gerson and Rogers are in favor of the FDA recalling the affected products. 

The silver lining(-ish)? The lab highlights that the presence of benzene appears to be from manufacturing contamination, unrelated to the specific sunscreen ingredients used. Based on that, it's safe to select a sunscreen from the list of options that Valisure didn't detect any benzene in, among them the below SPFs from Neutrogena, Aveeno, La Roche-Posay, CVS Health, and Banana Boat. However, Gerson recommends avoiding spray sunscreens out of concern about inhaling the ingredients.  

For their part, a Neutrogena representative says: "Nothing is more important than the health and safety of the people who use our products. Benzene is not an ingredient in any of our personal care products and we are reviewing the findings presented in this petition. Every ingredient we use in our products is carefully selected to ensure safety and performance in line with our rigorous 5-step safety assurance process. We are committed to making high-quality, safe and effective sunscreens available to consumers." 

Shop certified benzene-free sunscreens ahead. 

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