Alarmingly, a laboratory named Valisure detected toxic levels of benzene in 78 common sunscreen and after-sun products such as certain brands of aloe vera gel. Their findings are important because benzene is a carcinogen – a substance that causes cancer, and we apply sunscreen specifically to avoid cancer.
Benzene is known to cause leukemia and lymphoma. How exactly benzene usually causes cancer has not been fully characterized. It appears that benzene can create toxic breakdown products in the lungs and the liver. These products react with DNA to result in broken DNA and altered chromosomes. The disrupted genes can no longer keep cells from growing or can get cells stuck in a permanently growing state, and cancer is set in motion.
Benzene is a chemical solvent and a basic ingredient in the manufacture of many chemicals. According to the CDC, benzene ranks in the “top 20 chemicals for production volume” and is used to make plastics, resins, lubricants, dyes, rubber, detergents, drugs and more. Benzene is found at significant levels in cigarette smoke and in some e-cigarette vapors. As an aside, I recently saw a billboard on the side of the highway that said “Be Patriotic. Vape!” A grand American flag was in the background of the billboard. If you know a youngster who is considering vaping, please let him or her know that there is no proven connection between vaping and patriotism (though scientists employed by the vaping industry may be working on it).
Given how common benzene is, it may be surprising to learn just how dangerous it can be even in small doses. In the United States, OSHA (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration) defines the permissible exposure limit as 1 part per million (ppm) in the air during an average work day. This is a limit for on-the-job exposure. In contrast, the limit set by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is 2 parts per million (ppm) for a drug product “with a significant therapeutic advance.” The guidance is that benzene is not to be used at all if its use is avoidable, and the laboratory Valisure found no detectable benzene in over 200 sunscreen and after-sun products tested. Therefore, there is no reason that we should tolerate benzene in any of our sunscreens.
Valisure’s list of benzene-containing sunscreens and after-sun products was broad and included major manufacturers. To see the lists of products that did and did not test positive, visit: https://bit.ly/3w8LyJL and https://bit.ly/3v8KzYP. Well-respected companies such as Neutrogena, CVS Health and EltaMD made both lists with some products testing positive and others not. More than 75% of the identified products are sprays. Unfortunately, there is no easy rule of thumb to avoid benzene. Dermatologists typically divide sunscreens into physical blockers (those that contain zinc and titanium to reflect the sun) and chemical blockers (those that use chemicals to “quench” ultraviolet rays). Regretfully, both physical and chemical blocker sunscreens are on the list of benzene-containing sunscreens.
Importantly, Valisure’s tests on the sunscreens did not identify benzene as a breakdown product of the tested sunscreens. Therefore, the presence of benzene appears to be from contamination [during the manufacturing process] and not from breakdown of the ingredients.
What should we do? The best approach is likely to pick a sunscreen from the non-contaminated list or not on the contaminated list and continue using sunscreen. We know that the sun causes more than 3 million skin cancers per year in the United States. And we should be thankful that the FDA and laboratories like Valisure are helping to keep us safe. What did my family do? We threw away a sunscreen that happened to be on the bad list and still applied sunscreen during our most recent beach trip. No company is perfect. No process is perfect. No product is perfect. Our job as parents, spouses or children is not to eliminate risk but to manage it to the best of our ability, and sunscreen continues to be a very important and proven method for reducing the risk of skin cancer. This was true even before Valisure’s research report. And Valisure appears to be helping us make sure that a good product gets even better.
If you or a loved one has a skin care need, consider Premier Dermatology and Mohs Surgery of Atlanta. Dr. Brent Taylor and Kathryn Filipek, PA-C are delighted to help you achieve your skin health goals. Dr. Taylor is a Harvard-graduate, a board certified dermatologist and vein care expert, and fellowship-trained Mohs surgeon. Kathryn Filipek has greater than 15 years of dermatology experience with expertise in medical, surgical and cosmetic dermatology.