It's almost summer, so chances are you're about to audit your sunscreen stash. But before you finish up one of the big bottles of SPF 50 in your cabinets, you might want to do some quick research on the brand that you use (in addition to checking its expiration date, ofc).
Valisure, an online pharmacy that conducts routine batch tests of common consumer health products, just reported some disconcerting findings about sunscreens that may already be on your shelf. The company tested 294 sunscreens and sun aftercare products, and found a whopping 78 of them contained benzene, a known carcinogen that has been linked to harmful effects in humans such as cancer and other serious medical conditions.
"Benzene is a chemical that, when activated with exposure to the skin, blood, or organs, can affect changes in your DNA that cause mutations for cancers," says Madhuri Chadha, M.D., founder of Dr. Madh Skin Solutions and radiologist currently working in aesthetic dermatology. "Benzene is linked to blood cancers such as leukemia and other cancers and conditions like [acute lymphoblastic leukemia], [chronic myelogenous leukemia], Non Hodgkins lymphoma, and aplastic anemia," adds Dr. Chadha.
Here's what you need to know about this news, including how to find out if your favorite sunscreen made the list of products containing benzene.
Which sunscreens were found to contain benzene?
Several common household brands — including Sun Bum, Neutrogena, Banana Boat, and CVS-brand sunscreen — were all found to contain unsafe levels of benzene, according to Valisure's test. The contaminated sunscreens include both chemical and mineral formulas. (You can find the full list on page 12 of the report here.) Valisure is now petitioning for the Food and Drug Administration to recall the products on its list.
To be clear, benzene isn't an ingredient intentionally included in these products; the products were found to be contaminated with benzene. So you want to check Valisure's list rather than scanning your sunscreen's ingredient list to see whether "benzene" is listed. "We don't know the source of the benzene, but it could relate to how a particular ingredient was manufactured, where it was sourced, or how it moved through the supply chain," Tod Cooperman, M.D., wrote in a review of the Valisure report for ConsumberLab.com. (Related: SPF and Sun Protection Myths to Stop Believing, Stat)
The FDA lists benzene as a class one solvent, meaning that it should not be used in the manufacture of drug substances, excipients (substances added to drugs such as fillers or preservatives), and drug products, because "because of [it's] unacceptable toxicity" or "deleterious environmental effect." However, when a class one solvent (such as benzene) is "unavoidable in order to produce a drug product," it should be limited to concentrations of 2 parts per million (ppm). In its report, Valisure argues that sunscreen production does not require benzene and that the FDA should "better define limits for benzene contamination in drug and cosmetic products." Beyond the fact that any amount of benzene in sunscreens is concerning, 14 sunscreen samples actually tested above that 2 ppm threshold, containing between 2.78 and 6.26 ppm of benzene.
What all this means to you as a sunscreen user: If the sunscreen you have is on this list, Dr. Chadha recommends that you throw it out immediately and switch to a sunscreen that's not on the list to get your UVA and UVB protection. (Related: The 11 Best Sunscreens for Your Face, According to Customer Reviews)
Is sunscreen safe?
If you feel like there's been a lot of concerning sunscreen news lately, you're not imagining it. There's been a growing concern among consumers that you can never be too sure what's in the sunscreen you're using or if its claims are valid. In December 2020, the brand Purito came under fire for labeling its sunscreen as SPF 50 while independent lab results suggested it only provided SPF 19 protection. A lot of people have become wary of chemical sunscreens (formulas that incorporate chemicals rather than minerals to block UV rays) following reports that the FDA is evaluating their safety and that they may harm coral reefs.
"There's confusion and misinformation about sunscreen that unfortunately has led to growing skepticism and a general fear factor that sunscreens are dangerous when in fact not using them is more dangerous," says dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D. Although FDA testing is rigorous and standards are high, it's not a foolproof system, she adds. (Related: The Best Zinc Oxide Sunscreens That Won't Make You Feel Greasy)
"Post-market consumer testing may often be different from preliminary formula testing for any number of reasons or factors," says Dr. Shamban. "I don't believe that most companies are trying to deceive the public or are overstating their potency, safety, or protection intentionally; however, there are some real failures within the systems that are cause for concern."
Regardless of your skin type, skin tone, or ethnicity, sunscreen should still be a top priority for you year-round. Dr. Shamban and Dr. Chadha both agree that mineral sunscreens (which will include titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in the ingredient list) are great options if you feel iffy about using chemical formulas. Either way, read through the list of sunscreens found to contain benzene and toss yours if it made the list.