Photo taken in Valencia, Spain
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New Report Finds A Known Carcinogen In Popular Sunscreens

Here’s what families need to know.

by Morgan Brinlee

A new report from the online pharmacy and analytical laboratory Valisure found high-levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen, in dozens of sunscreen and after-sun care products spread across a number of different brands. Benzene’s link to cancers like leukemia make the findings of this report particularly concerning.

“Benzene is one of the most studied and concerning human carcinogens known to science. Its association with forming blood cancers in humans has been shown in numerous studies,” Valisure founder and CEO David Light said in a statement released alongside the company’s findings. “The presence of this known human carcinogen in products widely recommended for the prevention of skin cancer and that are regularly used by adults and children is very troubling.”

Valisure tested nearly 300 sunscreen and after-sun products, including sprays, gels, and lotions with both chemical and mineral-based formulas, for benzene and found significant variability from batch to batch — even when those batches came from the same company. In total, Valisure has said 78 of the sunscreen and after-sun care products tested contained benzene.

What Exactly Did The Report Find?

According to Valisure, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently allows for 2 parts-per-million (ppm) of benzene in drug products where there is either a significant therapeutic advance or use of the chemical is unavoidable.

Of the 294 sunscreen and after-sun care products from 69 different brands Valisure tested, 14 (all made by four different brands) were found to have levels of benzene that ranged from 2.78 to 6.26 ppm. These included a bottle of Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Weightless Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100+ from lot number 04820E04 (6.26 ppm of benzene) as well as a bottle of CVS Health’s After-sunAloe Vera Soothing Spray from lot number 8140449A (4.71 ppm of benzene).

Another 26 products from eight different brands were found to contain detectable levels of benzene that ranged from 0.11 to 1.99 ppm. These included a bottle of Banana Boat’s Kids Max Protect & Play Sunscreen CSpray SPF 100 from lot number 200910346 (0.41 ppm of benzene) and Neutrogena’s Invisible Daily Defense Body Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 60+ from lot number 17820E01 (1.99 ppm of benzene).

An additional 38 products from 17 different brands were reported to contain detectable levels of benzene that measured at or below 0.1 ppm while 217 batches of product from 66 brands had no detectable levels of benzene.

What Is Benzene?

Benzene is a colorless or light-yellow liquid chemical capable of evaporating into the air. Although found in things like crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke, benzene is also used as a solvent in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. More importantly, it can have serious and harmful effects on people’s health.

According to the National Cancer Institute, exposure to benzene is known to increase one’s risk of developing leukemia and other blood disorders. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that direct exposure of benzene to the skin, eyes, or lungs can cause tissue injury and irritation.

It’s nearly impossible, however, to completely eliminate your exposure to benzene. According to the CDC, low levels of benzene are often present in outdoor air due to motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, tobacco smoke, and gas station fumes. Indoor air is also likely to contain higher levels of the chemical due to its presence in products such as detergents, paint, furniture wax, and glues.

How Have Sunscreen Brands Responded?

A number of the brands named in Valisure’s report tell Romper they are currently working to review the online pharmacy’s findings. A spokesperson for Banana Boat stressed that benzene was not an ingredient included in any of the brand’s sunscreen or after-sun products and that any levels detected by Valisure had been within the FDA’s limits.

“Any trace of Benzene in the Banana Boat® products at the levels reported by Valisure do not present a consumer safety concern and are within allowable limits set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for drug products,” a spokesperson for Banana Boat tells Romper. “Our sun care products undergo rigorous testing, which includes extensive clinical safety testing under the supervision of a Board-certified dermatologist, to ensure safety and quality and meet all FDA regulations. We are in the process of reviewing and evaluating Valisure’s report for select Banana Boat products and want to reassure consumers that Benzene is not an ingredient in any of our sunscreens or after sun products.”

A spokesperson for CVS Health also tells Romper the company is working to review the data in Valisure’s report and stressed that, “CVS Pharmacy's store brands are designed to maximize quality and assure the products we offer are safe, work as intended, comply with regulations and satisfy customers.”

Like Banana Boat, Neutrogena, a brand owned by Johnson & Johnson, also maintained that, “Benzene is not an ingredient in any of our personal care products” in a statement to Romper.

“Nothing is more important than the health and safety of the people who use our products,” the company says. “We are reviewing the findings presented in this petition. Every ingredient we use in our products is carefully selected to ensure safety and performance in line with our rigorous 5-step safety assurance process. We are committed to making high-quality, safe and effective sunscreens available to consumers.”

What’s Happening Now?

In light of its report, Valisure has asked that all contaminated products and batches be recalled. The lab also urged the FDA to better define its limits for benzene contamination in drug and cosmetic products, which sunscreens and after-sun care products fall under. Because a majority of the sunscreen products Valisure tested had no traceable levels of benzene, the company has argued the chemical is not unavoidable in sunscreen production and manufacturing.

According to CBS News, the FDA is currently reviewing Valisure’s claims. “The FDA takes seriously any safety concerns raised about products we regulate, including sunscreen," the agency said in a statement to the news outlet.

What Can Parents Do To Stay Sun Safe?

It’s important to note that no one, not even Valisure, is recommending that families ditch the sunscreen altogether. Sunscreen provides important protection from cancer-causing ultraviolet (UV) rays. Individuals aged 6 months and up are encouraged to wear a broad spectrum sunscreen with an spf of 15 or higher and the ability to block both UVA and UVB rays whenever they are outside.

“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,” Valisure said in its report.

In fact, of the nearly 300 sunscreen and after-sun care products Valisure tested, 217 batches of sunscreen from 66 brands were found not to have any detectable levels of benzene. A full list of those products can be found here.