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
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
“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