Just as families across the U.S. look forward to spending more time outdoors this summer comes the unwelcome news that a number of popular sunscreens have been shown to contain benzene, a chemical known to cause leukemia and other blood cancers. Benzene is used primarily as a solvent in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and its use is tightly regulated.
According to recent news reports, traces of benzene have been detected in dozens of popular sunscreens and after-sun products. In tests of nearly 300 sprays and lotions, the cancer-causing chemical was found in 78 products, including some formulations sold by Neutrogena, Banana Boat and CVS.
Tests showed that the highest level of benzene – 6.26 parts per million (ppm) – was detected in a batch of Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Weightless Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100. Two different batches of the same sunscreen, each with an SPF of 70, contained 5.96 and 5.76 ppm of the chemical. Sun Bum’s Cool Down Gel contained the next highest amount, at 5.33 ppm.
Valisure, the online pharmacy and lab conducting the tests, has petitioned the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to immediately recall sunscreens found to contain benzene. Sunscreens and after-sun lotions are classified as cosmetics and generally subject to FDA regulation.
“We know that exposure to benzene is associated with blood cancers such as leukemia,” says Michael Kasper, M.D.,  director of radiation oncology for Lynn Cancer Institute  at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, part of Baptist Health South Florida. “What we don’t know is how it wound up in more than a quarter of the sunscreen products tested.”
It could be the result of contamination in the manufacturing process, Dr. Kasper says. “Or, it may be a naturally occurring breakdown of other chemicals contained in those sunscreens, such as avobenzone, oxybenzone and homosalate.” These chemicals are related to benzene, he says, and even though they’re approved by the FDA for use in sunscreens and other products, a number of manufacturers are now excluding them from their formulations.
Either way, says Dr. Kasper, benzene is not an ingredient that should be there, and consumers need to educate themselves on the different types of sunscreens available and the ingredients they contain.
“Not using sunscreens isn’t really an option – especially here in South Florida where we’re outdoors all year long.” But, he cautions, not all sunscreens are alike and consumers need to know the difference.
“With chemical-based sunscreens, the ingredients are absorbed by the skin and create a chemical barrier that protects you against the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays,” Dr. Kasper says. “Mineral-based sunscreens, on the other hand, are not absorbed by the skin. They contain either titanium dioxide or zinc dioxide, which act as a physical barrier against UV rays.”
Benzene contamination has not been found in any mineral-based sunscreens, and Dr. Kasper says these products are absolutely safe to use.
What about old sunscreens people have had around the house for years – are they safe? Conventional wisdom holds that chemical-based sunscreens break down over time, diminishing their effectiveness, says Dr. Kasper. Now, you have another reason to throw them out, he says. “If the benzene contamination is actually occurring as a result of a breakdown of other ingredients, then I would say yes, it would certainly make sense to dispose of your old chemical-based sunscreens.”
Skin cancer affects more people each year than breast or prostate cancer combined, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, and nearly 10,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every single day. Even so, Dr. Kasper says, skin cancer is highly preventable – if you take active steps every day to limit your sun exposure.
“Stay out of the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” Dr. Kasper advises. “On a South Florida summer day, the sun’s rays can still be pretty strong even at 5 p.m., so just be careful whenever you’re outside during the day.” If you do have to be outdoors, he recommends using a mineral-based sunscreen and wearing cool, lightweight clothing with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 40 or 50.
Sun safety is especially important for children and teens, according to Dr. Kasper. “Studies show that 90 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 20, so make sure you keep the kids covered up.”
Editor’s Note: A full list of sunscreens and after-sun lotions found to contain trace amounts of benzene can be found on pages 12-15 of the Valisure petition to the FDA.