Benzene, a carcinogen linked to some leukemia and lymphomas and other significant health problems (especially in children) has recently been detected in a large number of sunscreens. This alarming revelation was announced right before Memorial Day Weekend, which marks the unofficial beginning of the summer season. It creates confusion for us all as we plan our sun protection strategy this year.
There are 3 important questions you need answered right away about the benzene in sunscreen story:
Which sunscreens contain benzene?
Why is benzene in sunscreen products in first place?
What should you do to protect yourself and your family from both the sun and this carcinogen?
Which sunscreens contain the cancer-causing chemical benzene?
Valisure, a pharmaceutical laboratory that tests products for consumer safety, found that 78 sunscreens and after sun care products were contaminated with benzene. Levels of benzene ranged from low to very very high.
You will see many familiar and popular brands listed as benzene contaminated including brands that strive to be natural and have a commitment to safety. Not all of the types of sunscreen products from these brands were contaminated so simply rejecting a brand won't necessarily keep you safe.
This benzene contamination issue is important because benzene is known to be absorbed through human skin, is a potent carcinogen, and no amount of benzene is acceptable in a skin care product. It is also absorbed by ingestion (think lip sunscreen), inhalation (spray sunscreens) and eye contact (sunscreen running into eyes from sweat or swimming).
Benzene is not entirely prohibited in personal care products. Valisure notes that the FDA allows the presence of benzene in products when it is essential to the production of a drug where the benefits outweigh the risks. They note in their petition to the FDA,
FDA currently recognizes the high danger of this compound and lists it as a “Class 1 solvent” that “should not be employed in the manufacture of drug substances, excipients, and drug products because of their unacceptable toxicity ... However, if their use is unavoidable in order to produce a drug product with a significant therapeutic advance, then their levels should be restricted” and
benzene is restricted under such guidance to 2 parts per million (“ppm”). Because many of the sunscreen products Valisure tested did not contain detectable levels of benzene, it does not appear that benzene use is unavoidable for their manufacture, and considering the long history and widespread use of these products, it also does not appear that they currently constitute a significant therapeutic advance; therefore, any significant detection of benzene should be deemed unacceptable.
Scroll to pages 12-15.
Not all sunscreens have yet been tested and I expect more surprises and dashing disappointments as testing continues. If you have one of the benzene containing sunscreens or after-sun products, refer to the disposal guidelines from Valisure.
Why is there benzene in sunscreens?
Contaminants such as benzene are apparently present in the ingredients initially sourced by a skin care production lab or facility. Benzene is one of the most commonly produced and used chemicals by industry and is present in of the raw materials used to create personal care products,
Benzene ranks in the top 20 most abundantly produced chemicals in the United States. It is a commercially important intermediate of many chemicals manufactured in the industry.
Interestingly, daily exposure to benzene is not uncommon and comes primarily from
- cigarette smoke, of which it is a major component,
- a byproduct of fossil fuel burning including car emissions,
- evaporating fumes from gasoline at service stations, and
- it is a common solvent used to produce many things - such as the some of the raw materials used drugs and personal care products like sunscreens.
Valisure also tested whether the benzene found in sunscreen might be formed from reactions of sunscreen actives after product formulation. This hypothesis makes sense because some of the actives have chemical structures that are structurally similar to benzene including avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, homosalate, and octocylene. No benzene was detected from this testing, leading me to assume that benzene contamination in sunscreens is most likely due to contamination in the initial raw ingredients that go into the sunscreens produced by the labs. I could not find out which ingredients those are from my research or speaking with skin care formulation chemists.
Benzene contamination of sunscreens and after-sun products is why ingredient sourcing is so important. - Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey
Our lab is hyper vigilant about sourcing only the highest-grade pure ingredients that are free from contaminants. We don't take shortcuts or chances. All ingredients meet USP standards and our suppliers test for benzene as a residual solvent. Our lab also periodically tests the materials as part of our supplier audits.
We also monitor and test during the production process to ensure that unintended byproducts are not introduced into products during production and packaging, because that too poses a significant risk in personal care products.
In addition, all of the ingredients in our pharmaceutical products, such as our Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreens, are medical grade and pure. Stability testing after production is also done to ensure products remain safe once they are made and stored.
This level of care is costly as you can imaging. It translates into us not having low prices and it parallels the high value I place on safety over everything else. I and my family use my products - and specifically don't use many other fun and inexpensive products made by other producers.
I've known and seen over the course of my entire career that personal care products can be harmful if this level of care is not taken. Sunscreen is the topic for this season. Remember that hormone-disrupting phthalates and other chemicals have been the topics for seasons in the past. There will undoubtedly be another alarming discovery next season.
My opinion is that the benzene contamination in sunscreen illuminates the fact that personal care products, like food and vitamin supplements, require us to trust the businesses and people that produce them. Ingredient sourcing and the manufacturing process allow for contaminants and unintended consequences. We need to scrutinize the businesses and people that we purchase from and choose ones that are careful and not cutting corners. Even then, there is no guarantee. - Dermatologist, Skin Wellness Expert, Mother and Consumer Dr. Cynthia Bailey
The benzene/sunscreen issue is just unfolding. Valisure tested 294 batches of sunscreen from 69 companies, but this is a small percentage. It is estimated by the FDA that 11,000 sunscreen products are on the market in the US. This means we need to 'stay tuned'.
What should you do to protect yourself and your family from UV sun damage and benzene this summer?
Wear UPF 50 clothing and apply a trusted zinc oxide mineral broad spectrum sunscreen on the small amount of exposed skin that's not covered. I have always recommended this because I know that it's smart. The benzene contamination issue makes that even more obvious.
Remember last year we learned that chemical sunscreens are absorbed into skin at high and unsafe amounts, especially when applied to large body surface areas. The FDA has said that only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be considered safe sunscreen active ingredients at this point. Use a mineral zinc oxide sunscreen from a source that you trust.
And please, don't be tempted to forgo sun protection. We know that UV rays cause skin cancer, wrinkles, skin thinning and fragility, and skin immune suppression. So, running around in the sun with exposed and unprotected skin is not a smart choice.
Dermatologist recommended sun protection now that benzene has been found in sunscreen
Smart sun protection includes 4 steps:
- covering as much of your skin with clothing that blocks UV rays,
- apply mineral zinc oxide sunscreen from a source that you trust.
- creating shade with a hat and being in the shade when you can, and
- knowing the intensity of your sun exposure so that you maintain enough protection to prevent a tan (because a tan indicates UV-induced DNA skin damage.
Click here for a larger and easier to read version of this sun protection infographic that I created. Please feel free to share it.
This is how I'm sun protecting and what I recommend to my family including my precious 16-month-old granddaughter.
How do you know which sunscreens to trust?
You don't entirely. Certainly, avoid the sunscreens on Table 2 and 3 on the Valisure Citizens Petition to the FDA (on pages 12 and 13 of this document)
Note that many of the companies on the benzene free list are also on the benzene contamination list. Of the benzene-free list,
217 batches of sunscreen from 66 different brands were clear through initial analysis of at least one sample.
But they also say in the report of the product lots that tested positive for benzene,
Significant variability from batch to batch was observed, even within a single company.
There was also batch to batch variation during the testing process so I'm not sure that we are really done with this and ready to make conclusions about brand/product safety just yet. I think we need to cover up with UPF 50 clothing, or clothing we think protects us, use trusted sunscreen from really reputable labs and exercise sun-safe choices like seeking and creating shade.