Concern About Carcinogen Benzene in Some Sunscreens

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Experts say safe sunscreens as well as other protection measures such as hats reduce your risk of skin cancer. Getty Images
  • A survey by an online pharmacy reports that about a quarter of sunscreen products contain the carcinogen benzene.
  • Experts advise people to continue to use safe sunscreens to reduce the risk of skin cancer.
  • They also recommend other protective measures such as avoiding sun exposure during the middle of the day and wearing protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats.

High levels of a known human carcinogen called benzene have been detected in 78 sunscreen and after-sun products.

That’s according to a survey conducted by the virtual pharmacy Valisure.

Researchers said they found 27 percent of samples tested contained benzene and some batches had up to three times the conditionally restricted concentration limit of 2 parts per million allowed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines benzene as a carcinogen and lists “inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, skin and/or eye contact” as possible exposure routes.

Valisure is requesting these contaminated batches be recalled and that the FDA tighten its definition for benzene contamination in drug and cosmetic products. The FDA regulates sunscreen under its cosmetics guidelines.

The pharmacy is also arguing that as a class 1 solvent, benzene should not be included in sunscreen because it has no therapeutic benefit.

A list of sunscreens tested by the lab can be found here.

The Skin Cancer Foundation is actively monitoring this issue and working with industry officials to learn more.

In an official statement responding to the findings, the foundation states that Valisure’s “findings are unrelated to the active ingredients in sunscreens and their findings are not specific to any one brand or type of sunscreen.”

But what about products with the foundation’s Seal of Recommendation? Are they safe?

“After serious consideration, we have decided not to remove products from our product finder, as the issue affects certain batches of products. We encourage consumers to check Valisure’s list against our product finder,” foundation officials said. “There are many sunscreen products available that have not been affected.”

Valisure officials agree.

“It is important to note that not all sunscreen products contain benzene and that uncontaminated products are available, should continue to be used, and are important for protecting against potentially harmful solar radiation,” says the Valisure news release.

The new research raises the issue of weighing potential carcinogen ingredients against the benefits of sunscreen in helping prevent skin cancer.

“I do not want anyone scaling back their sun protection efforts and potentially increasing their risk for skin cancer,” said Dr. Adam Friedman, FAAD, a board certified dermatologist and chair of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“We’ll know more once the FDA reviews this report and determines if the benzene levels detected exceed the FDA’s limits and how it should be addressed,” he told Healthline.

In the meantime, while this report raises concerns, Friedman said, “It’s important to note that this is one report which therefore needs to be validated, and the clinical relevance of these findings is unknown, as the concern around benzene’s cancer-causing properties stems from chronic inhalation or ingestion.”

“To date, there is very limited data on what happens when benzene is applied to the skin,” he added.

Friedman recommends sun protection every day, even on cloudy days.

“What we unequivocally do know is that overexposure to the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form,” he said.

Friedman encourages everyone to think about sun protection as a daily habit, like brushing your teeth. Parents, in particular, need to help protect their children’s skin.

“Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States,” said Friedman. “It only takes one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence to nearly double a person’s chance of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, later in life.”

“This is why it’s imperative that parents and caretakers do everything they can to protect children from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays,” he added.

Here’s some safety tips from the Skin Cancer Foundation:

  • Seek shad, especially during peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing, such as lightweight long-sleeved shirts, pants, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses with UV protection. You can also wear clothing, swimwear, and athletic wear made with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) fabrics.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to exposed skin.
  • Seek shaded structures or areas.

“If you are not comfortable wearing sunscreen right now, choose a sun protection option you are comfortable with,” advises Friedman.

With news of benzene in sunscreens from brands such as Banana Boat and CVS, you might be wondering if it’s safer to simply make your own sunscreen.

Here’s why experts say you shouldn’t.

“Sunscreen is not a good DIY project,” said Friedman. “Most homemade sunscreens lack effective sun protection, leaving users vulnerable to sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer.”

“Homemade sunscreens do not go through the rigorous testing required of commercial sunscreens by the FDA, which means that their SPF, water resistance, and shelf life cannot be guaranteed,” he added.

In addition, Friedman said the inconsistencies in the effectiveness of homemade sunscreens may also vary between batches.

The bottom line?

It may be too early to tell what the full significance of the report is, but nevertheless, experts say sun safety needs to be a priority, and sunscreen is just one aspect of protection. If you’re not using sunscreen, make sure you’re extra cautious about avoiding exposure to UV rays.


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