Sunscreen and the carcinogen benzene: What to know to protect yourself

The FDA says it's investigating why benzene is showing up in aerosol personal healthcare products

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Use of the carcinogen benzene in some sunscreen products is a growing concern. But it certainly doesn’t mean you should avoid sunscreen to protect yourself from painful sunburn and potentially deadly skin cancer, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says

A handful of sunscreens, aerosol deodorants and other personal healthcare products have been recalled in recent years because of benzene levels. Benzene is found in auto emissions, cigarette smoke and emissions from burning coal and oil. Over time, exposure to benzene from breathing it in or absorbing it through the skin can lead to leukemia and other serious health issues. 

People are still encouraged to use sunscreen when outdoors, even on cloudy days, and reapply it every two hours, or more often as needed. The FDA recommends an SPF value of 15 or higher.

At the same time, it’s wise to stay informed about recalls. Here are some of the brands and types recalled in the last few years because of benzene.

  • Banana Boat Hair & Scalp Sunscreen. Jan, 30, 2023. Various batches/lots. An expansion of a previous recall of Hair & Scalp Spray.
  • Banana Boat Hair & Scalp Sunscreen. July 29, 2022. Three batches of Hair & Scalp Spray.
  • Coppertone. Sept. 30, 2021. 12 lots of Pure & Simple baby, kids’, sport and other varieties of aerosol sunscreen. 
  • Johnson & Johnson. July 14, 2021. Five varieties of Neutrogena Beach Defense, Cool Dry Sport, Invisible Daily and Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen and Aveeno Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen. For some reason, the J&J recall doesn’t appear on the FDA’s recalls website in the section where recalls of sunscreens and other personal healthcare products are announced.

Two months before the Johnson & Johnson recall, the pharmaceutical testing company Valisure sounded the alarm about problems with benzene in sunscreens. Valisure sent a 19-page petition to the FDA asking it to recall or issue guidance on 40 different lots of sunscreen under 10 different brands because of significant levels of benzene. On page 12 of that petition, Valisure said batches of several sprays from Neutrogena had tested for more benzene than what it described elsewhere as the “conditionally restricted FDA concentration limit of 2 parts per million (ppm).”

Benzene in aerosol sprays may be occurring because of inactive ingredients such as thickening agents, propellants or other components. “FDA is evaluating the root cause of benzene contamination,” the FDA says, “and has alerted companies to the risk of benzene contamination in drug products and reminded them of their obligation to ensure their products meet appropriate quality specifications.”

Benzene also is found occasionally in other spray products. A few recalls in recent years include:

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Authors

Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.

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