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Is benzene in sunscreen a cause for concern?

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with about one in five Americans developing it in their lifetime. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight increases the risk of developing skin cancer. Fortunately, research has shown that regular sunscreen use may reduce that risk. However, recent reports have raised concerns about benzene in sunscreen.

The problem with benzene in sunscreen

Benzene is a Group 1 carcinogen. This means that there is enough research that links benzene exposure to cancer risk. Scientists widely accept that benzene exposure increases the risk of blood cancers, such as leukemia. When a product that’s formulated to help people avoid skin cancer contains an ingredient that can increase blood cancer risk, consumers are right to worry. Additionally, long-term exposure to benzene may cause fertility issues, weaken the immune system, and cause anemia.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drug products. Because exposure to even small amounts of benzene through ingestion, inhalation, dermal absorption, and skin or eye contact is a known health risk, the FDA recommends manufacturers avoid benzene in sunscreen and other drug products. As a result, the FDA restricts benzene content in drug products to 2 parts per million, and only allows it at all in cases where there is no way to make a drug product with significant therapeutic benefits without using benzene in the manufacturing process.

What is benzene?

Benzene is a chemical that naturally occurs in crude oil, gas, and cigarette smoke. It is a byproduct of burning tobacco and tar and refining crude oil. Manufacturers commonly use benzene to produce products such as rubber, plastic, and pesticides.

Outdoor pollutants, such as vehicle exhaust and fumes from gas pumps, expose everyone to benzene on a daily basis. You may also breathe in some benzene in your home due to the chemical's presence in paints, glues, detergents, and furniture wax. Because repeated small exposures to benzene can pose a chronic health risk, experts recommend people avoid benzene exposure as much as possible.

How does benzene affect the body?

Repeated exposure to benzene affects the body's cell regulation, causing irregularities in white blood cells and anemia. The effects of benzene vary depending on the level and length of exposure and how it enters the body. If you breathe too much benzene, you may immediately experience symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, headaches, or loss of consciousness.

Consuming foods or drinks that contain benzene can cause vomiting, irregular heartbeat, and digestive pain. Exposure to benzene may also damage the nerves and nervous system. High levels of exposure may shrink ovaries and cause irregular menstrual cycles. It can also cause loss of appetite, sleepiness, confusion, burning eyes, blurred vision, trembling, and pale or red-dotted skin.

Severe cases may result in collapse or convulsions. The effects of absorbing the chemical through the skin are not well known because researchers have not studied these effects extensively.

What should you do if you are exposed to benzene in sunscreen?

The main danger of sunscreens contaminated with benzene comes from repeated exposure over a long period of time. Though there is not enough benzene in any of the recalled sunscreens to cause immediate symptoms or require emergency medical care, you should immediately stop using any product that has been recalled. 

Benzene contamination study

Routine sunscreen testing detected benzene in some sunscreen products. Valisure LLC, a pharmaceutical analytic services company, conducted a market assessment to determine whether there was a widespread issue with sunscreen products containing benzene. Valisure found that 78 of the initial 294 sunscreen and after-sun care products the company tested contained benzene.

A total of 14 products exceeded the 2 ppm limit for drug products with two products having levels that measured between 11.2 and 23.6 ppm. Valisure went on to test 368 additional sunscreen and after-sun products through consumer crowdsourcing. 192 of the 661 product samples contained benzene with 72 samples containing more than 2 ppm.

Valisure notified the FDA of its finding of benzene in sunscreen which led to a voluntary recall by the manufacturers of a variety of sunscreen products implicated in the study. Over 75% of the recalled products are sprays.

Cause of benzene contamination

If manufacturers aren't supposed to use benzene when making sunscreen, how did it get in there? Some researchers believe that some of the compounds used in spray propellants can form benzene when mixed.  Other possible explanations include contamination or production as a byproduct of the manufacturing process or production of one or more raw materials. What we do know is that no manufacturer of sunscreen uses benzene in its products intentionally.

Risks of benzene in sunscreen

We know that benzene poses health risks, and we know that at least some sunscreen products have been found to have benzene in them. How much risk does using sunscreen products that contain benzene pose?

Research is still ongoing. In particular, scientists are researching whether you can absorb benzene through your skin and how much benzene needs to be in a sunscreen product to pose a health risk. One study determined that there is no evidence of elevated levels of benzene in the blood of people who use sunscreen.

The most likely risk of benzene in sunscreen is chronic exposure which could increase the risk of blood disorders, such as leukemia or anemia, and other cell-based cancers. Benzene contamination in sunscreen is particularly concerning because experts advise people to use sunscreen every day and reapply it frequently.

Sunscreen safety

Sunscreen products are available as creams, sprays, lotions, oils, gels, mousses, sticks, foams, and powders. Creams and other non-spray formats are good alternatives to spray sunscreens. While research into the risks of benzene exposure through skin absorption is ongoing, inhalation is a known risk. This further backs the recommendation to avoid spray sunscreens because you may unintentionally inhale some of the product while spraying it on your body.

Why you should keep using sunscreen

While concern over benzene in sunscreen is understandable, you should continue to use sunscreen: The risks associated with exposure to UV radiation exceed the likely risk of benzene exposure from sunscreen. Additionally, while the number of products containing benzene is concerning, 71% of the 368 products tested did not contain any benzene, and manufacturers of the recalled products have made efforts to ensure that benzene contamination is not an issue in future batches.

Experts recommend that everyone over the age of six months use sunscreen when exposed to the sun. This includes people who do not burn easily: UV rays can still damage your skin, even if you do not get a sunburn.

If you have concerns about benzene contamination, take these steps to reduce your risk:

  • Research the products recalled due to contamination and choose other products.
  • Avoid spray sunscreen.
  • Choose lotions and creams over other types of sunscreens.

If you have already purchased recalled products, discontinue use.

Other ways to protect yourself from the sun

While there is no replacement for the protection offered by sunscreen—particularly during activities such as outdoor work or recreation—there are other steps you can take to enhance the effectiveness of sunscreens and further lower your UV exposure risk:

  • Limit sun exposure, especially between the hours of 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., when radiation levels are at their highest. 
  • Wear sun-protective clothing, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat when you can.
  • Stay in the shade as much as possible.
  • Check the UV Index forecast and protect your skin as much as you can when the index is at 3 or higher.
  • Avoid tanning equipment.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher at least every two hours throughout the day. 

UV radiation can damage your skin even when the weather is cloudy, so it’s important to practice sun safety year-round.

Final thoughts on benzene in sunscreen

While benzene contamination in sunscreen products is a concern, it is a relatively minimal one. The majority of sunscreen products tested did not contain benzene and of those that did, most were spray products. All of them have since been recalled.

Dermatologists and other health care professionals recommend that you continue to regularly use sunscreen because the known risks of unprotected sun exposure outweigh the relatively small risk of benzene exposure through the use of sunscreen products. People who want to minimize their potential risks can avoid spray sunscreens, and everyone should combine sunscreen use with other protective measures, such as wearing UV-protective clothing and accessories.

Clair Obscur is designing beautiful and functional sun protection, including sunscreen, accessories, and clothing, that provides everyday protection from harmful UV radiation while also helping you look and feel stylish. There is no need to worry about benzene in sunscreen with our products. The ingredients we use are safe, luxurious, and lightweight. Our products feel so good on your skin that the sun protection is almost a bonus. Visit us online to find out more.