A Known Carcinogen Was Found in Some Popular Sunscreens—Here’s What You Should Know

·6 min read
Photo credit: RuslanDashinsky - Getty Images
Photo credit: RuslanDashinsky - Getty Images

This article was medically reviewed by Mona Gohara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and member of Prevention’s Medical Review Board.

Sunscreen is a crucial step in any skincare routine, but some brands might not be living up to their safety promises: In May, an independent lab announced it discovered potentially harmful levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, in several popular sun-care products. Now, Johnson & Johnson has voluntarily recalled five entire lines of Neutrogena and Aveeno spray sunscreens.

In a report released May 24, Valisure, a lab and online pharmacy that regularly tests consumer products, explains it analyzed 294 batches of sunscreen and after-sun products from 69 brands. Benzene was detected in 78 (over a quarter) of those batches—and 14 of them contained more than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limit of 2 parts per million (ppm).

“Sprays, gels, and lotions with both chemical and mineral-based formulations contained benzene,” Valisure wrote. Neutrogena, Sun Bum, CVS Health, and Fruit of the Earth were among the brands with the highest levels of the carcinogen, per the lab’s results.

Although these findings sound concerning, they don’t prove that every product from these brands are always chock-full of benzine: “There was significant variability from batch to batch, even within a single brand,” the report states.

Valisure petitioned the FDA for a recall of 40 affected batches of sunscreen, which includes all samples that had a benzene concentration of at least 0.1 ppm. Neutrogena’s UltraSheer Weightless Sunscreen Spray SPF 100, for example, contained the most benzene of the batches tested, with 6.26 ppm, or more than triple the FDA’s limit.

“While benzene is not an ingredient in any of our sunscreen products, it was detected in some samples of the impacted aerosol sunscreen finished products,” Johnson & Johnson wrote in a July 14 press release following internal testing. “We are investigating the cause of this issue, which is limited to certain aerosol sunscreen products.”

But the report and the recall don’t mean you’re automatically exposing yourself to a carcinogen every time you lather up—or, worse yet, that you shouldn't wear SPF. Here’s what you need to know about benzene contamination in sunscreen, plus what you can do to stay safe (and shielded from the sun) this summer.

What is benzene, exactly?

“Benzene is an organic compound known to be a carcinogen, which means it has been associated with the development of cancers,” explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It’s not an ingredient in sunscreen; the contamination is more likely a result of the manufacturing process. (It shouldn’t be confused with avobenzone, which is a common chemical sunscreen filter you can find on many labels.)

Benzene takes the form of a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s used in plastic production and appears in gasoline and cigarette smoke. Long-term exposure to benzene primarily impacts the blood, the CDC notes, potentially leading to leukemia and other blood disorders.

How dangerous is benzene in sunscreen?

For now, we can’t be sure. The FDA classifies benzene as a Class 1 solvent, meaning it should be avoided in the manufacturing of drugs and drug products unless absolutely necessary. There isn’t any measure of how much benzene is safe to include in sun-care products, though; the FDA established a temporary 2 ppm limit on hand sanitizers during the pandemic, but there is no analogue for SPF.

“Detection of benzene is not a commonly performed test on sunscreens as they are brought to the market,” Dr. Zeichner explains. Because of this gray area, we really don’t know how much benzene is unsafe to apply to our skin or how much is present in our favorite products—especially because the level can change from batch to batch, Valisure says.

Johnson & Johnson (the maker of Neutrogena sunscreen), Sun Bum, and CVS all denied including benzene in their products in statements to CBS News. The brands have pledged to reevaluate their testing and sourcing moving forward.

☀️ You love science-backed skincare. So do we. Let’s nerd out over it together.

“Many of the sunscreens found to contain benzene have been on the market for years,” Dr. Zeichner continues. “The true effects of the low levels of benzene detectable in the sunscreens on our health is yet to to be determined.”

Considering benzene’s link to cancer, it’s still probably best to avoid it whenever possible. Valisure contends that benzene should not be allowed in any SPF products, and part of their petition asks the FDA to establish a concentration limit for products like sunscreens, on top of a daily exposure limit.

Does this mean your sunscreen is unsafe?

It’s understandable to throw away any of the sunscreens cited in the report. (You can see the full list here.) Valisure recommends disposing of the affected batches—and you can even reach out to the lab to send it a sample of your SPF before tossing it. If you happen to own any of the sunscreens listed in Johnson & Johnson’s recall, the company recommends tossing them and reaching out at 1-800-458-1673 to ask questions or request a refund. Those products include:

  • Neutrogena Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen

  • Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen

  • Neutrogena Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen

  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen

  • Aveeno Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen

However, the vast majority of the products tested by Valisure contained no benzene, and dozens more contained only trace amounts of the chemical. Popular options from brands like Banana Boat, Coppertone, Coola, EltaMD had no detectable carcinogens. Even brands that had certain products with high levels of benzene also had plenty of products that contained none at all, including Neutrogena and Sun Bum.

Most of the worst offenders cited in the report were spray sunscreens, meaning you might want to avoid aerosol-based SPFs and after-sun products until more research is done. (Dermatologists don’t usually recommend sprays, anyway, since application can be “inconsistent” and many people forget to rub them in.)

“The most likely theory is that benzene probably developed from a reaction caused from the propellant used to deliver the sunscreen from the bottle itself,” Dr. Zeichner explains. “While it was not initially in the formula, it was created through a chemical reaction.”

Bottom line: Don’t stop using SPF.

It’s crucial to protect your skin from damaging UV rays, Dr. Zeichner says, which can lead to painful sunburns, premature signs of aging, and skin cancer.

Yes, there could be health issues linked to benzene in sunscreen, but they haven’t been established yet. Sunscreen is one of the most effective tools we have against the sun’s damaging UV rays, shielding us from annoying and dangerous skin issues, including skin cancer. For now, keep lathering up with a sunscreen you feel comfortable with—as long as you use one, you’re good to go. The picks below contained no benzene, per the report:

You Might Also Like

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting