Breaking News: Carcinogen Benzene Found in Some Over-the-Counter Sunscreen Products Robin Lewallen, MD FAAD

On May 25th, 2021 Valisure, a third party testing pharmaceutical company that batch tests medications before they are released to the general public, released a report where they tested 294 unique batches of sunscreens from 69 different sunscreen and after-sun care brands. They found that over a quarter (27%) of the specific products and batches tested were contaminated with benzene.
What is Benzene
According to the United States (US) Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), US Department of Health and Human Services, and various other regulatory agencies, benzene is known to cause cancer in humans. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines benzene as a carcinogen; unsafe exposure to benzene can include inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, and skin or eye contact. The toxicity of benzene in humans has been well-established for over 120 years and was first reported in 1987. Benzene is specifically linked to blood cancers such as leukemia. A different study from 1939 and a review article from 2010 found that there is probably no safe level of exposure to benzene.
Test results
Valisure analyzed 294 unique batches from 69 different companies. In Valisure’s testing, 27% of samples had detectable levels of benzene, and some contained up to 3 times the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concentration limit of 2 parts per million (ppm). Significant variability from batch to batch was observed, even within a single company. Benzene contamination was detected in sprays, gels, and lotions with both chemical and mineral-based formulations. Of note, no powder sunscreens were tested.
14 lots of sunscreen and after-sun care products from four different brands (Neutrogena, CVS Health, Sun Bum, and Fruit of the Earth) contained between 2.78 – 6.26 ppm of benzene
26 lots from eight brands contained detectable benzene between 0.11 – 1.99 ppm
38 lots from 17 brands contained detectable benzene at < 0.1 ppm Examples of some common sunscreens that tested positive for benzene include Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Weightless Sunscreen Spray SPF 100+, Babyganics Kid's Continuous Spray SPF 50, and Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Water Resistant Lotion SPF 70. A full list of the sunscreens that were tested with detectable levels of benzene can be found in Table 2 and Table 3 of this pdf:
Benzene was not detected in 273 (73%) of the batches tested from 66 different brands. Examples of some common sunscreens that tested negative for benzene include EltaMD UV Pure Lotion SPF 47, EltaMD UV Clear Lotion SPF 46, La RochePosay Anthelios SPF 60, Bare Republic Mineral Spray Vanilla Coconut SPF 50, and ThinkBaby Lotion SPF 50. Tested sunscreens that were found to have zero benzene can be found in this pdf:
Keep in mind that Valisure only tested 294 specific sunscreens and specific batches. Significant variability from batch to batch was observed, even within a single company. There was a trend of spray sunscreens having higher levels of benzene than the gels, lotions and creams that were tested. No powder sunscreens were tested. These results are important for the general public to be aware of and we look forward to more testing so that we can make informed decisions on safe sun protection.
Thankfully, the majority of sunscreens tested, 73%, were found to be safe and completely free of benzene contamination. The results of the Valisure data may be considered by some to be preliminary as it has only been done by one lab (Valisure) and these results have not been reproduced by another lab/facility. Additional testing and research is needed and our conclusions could change with additional data and FDA verification/guidance.
Of note, the 2ppm concentration limit set by the FDA only applies in special manufacturing circumstances, which do not include sunscreen manufacturing. Therefore, until we have more information it is best to assume that sunscreens containing ANY detectable level of benzene should be avoided. More information and testing is necessary to create a concentration limit for standard drug products, including sunscreen, and to also set a daily acceptable exposure benzene limit. Interestingly, Valisure also published results showing high concentrations of benzene in certain hand sanitizer products in March of 2021.
We recommend that if you see your sunscreen on the list in table 2 or 3 ( that you should switch to a different sunscreen. The batches with high levels of benzene may be recalled but we suggest not waiting for a recall to occur before switching to a different sunscreen.
IMPORTANTLY, these findings are NOT a reason to avoid using sunscreen! Sunscreen has been proven to reduce the risk of skin cancer by blocking ultraviolet radiation in numerous peer-reviewed journal articles. Sunscreen is an effective way to prevent skin cancer, skin aging, and discoloration. It is important to remember that sunscreen is just one component of an effective sun protection strategy. Avoiding peak hours of the sun, seeking shade, and wearing UPF clothing, broad-brimmed hats, sun protective sleeves/gloves, and sunglasses are also key components of sun protection.

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