Updated: Jun 9
"27% of sunscreen samples tested contained benzene [a known carcinogen]," according to analyses by Valisure. Read more...
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What are the health risks of benzene?
Benzene is a known carcinogen. It is considered hematotoxic that has been linked to blood cancers including leukemia. Most of the studies that evaluate benzene and its impact on human health are with regard to exposure to gasoline. The hematotoxic effects include reducing red blood cells, reducing platelet counts, reducing white blood cell counts, decreased hemoglobin, and the risk for acute myelogenous leukemia. Low levels of exposure can cause dizziness, headaches, and tiredness.
How was benzene found in sunscreens? Is it an ingredient?
Almost 300 sunscreen products sold routinely over the counter, including common and popular brand names were tested by a company called Valisure. It is unclear how benzene made its way into the products, however, it is not listed as an ingredient on the label which makes determining products to choose much more difficult. The presence of benzene in these products may be the result of the manufacturing process. Valisure has petitioned the FDA to have these products recalled. For a full list of products tested follow this link. Please note that there is no consistency across brand names or product types (i.e., lotion, spray, cream, etc.). In other words, not all Neutrogena products tested for example contained benzene, only certain types. It is also important to note that this issue could be from the manufacturing process and only impacted certain batches from these sunscreen types.
Are there benzene-free sunscreens?
It is actually difficult to recommend with certainty a sunscreen without benzene given that the only way we can determine its presence is if it is tested for. Remember, this could have been from the manufacturing process and only impacted certain batches from these sunscreen types and not necessarily all of the sunscreens of these particular types. Valisure did release a list of products that did not have benzene detected here. See below for some options from this list:
Any tips on how to quickly identify a product with benzene in it based on the products tested?
It is difficult to answer this question with certainty as, again, the benzene was not an active ingredient but may have contaminated the batches. That being said, I often recommend consideration to seek products with the word ‘babies’ on the label as these products are predominantly mineral sunscreens containing only zinc and /or titanium. Of the 72 products that tested positive for benzene by Valisure, only one had the word babies on the label.
What should people understand about the ingredients in their sunscreen?
Sunscreens are skincare products with active ingredients intended to absorb or reflect UV. The active ingredients available are generally broken down into two categories: physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. Products containing physical sunscreen ingredients work by blocking UV from interacting with the skin. They reflect UV away from the skin. Examples of physical sunscreens include products that contain zinc or titanium. Oftentimes these can be referred to as sunblocks because they are physically blocking UV from interacting with the skin.
Products with chemical sunscreen ingredients contain compounds that absorb UV to prevent it from interacting with the skin. These can work well but may not always be able to absorb all of the UV that your skin is exposed to allowing some UV rays to come through. There are a number of chemical sunscreen ingredients with the most common being oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. In recent years there has been tremendous scrutiny over the potential endocrine disruption caused by these products as well as their impact on aquatic life, coral in particular.
Should I still use sunscreen given the risk?
The main use of sunscreen is to prevent your skin from experiencing damage from harmful UVA and UVB rays. It’s important to note that the use of sunscreen is not just to prevent sunburn. This is an important point to emphasize as many people who do not burn easily in the sun are under the false impression that they do not need to use sunscreens. I often hear- ‘I don’t really get sunburns so I don’t have to use them.’ This is a problem because research and practice have shown that those with a tendency to tan easier than burn still get skin cancer but it is often diagnosed at a later stage as many are simply thinking they are not at risk for it. If your sunscreen is doing its job then you will reduce the chances for premature aging of the skin, sunburns, and skin cancer. Sunblock choice needs to be focused on ingredients. Look for Zinc and/or Titanium as the active ingredients. The ingredients block UVA and UVB effectively and safely. The problem with chemical sunscreens is that they absorb UV. Once they hit their maximal absorption, the rest overflows to the skin. This can result in sunburn or discoloration for someone attempting to take every step to protect their skin. SPF is a frustrating rating system as it is only an indication of how much UVB is blocked by the product. UVB is a measure of the product’s ability to prevent sunburn. This tells us nothing about UVA. UVA is linked to discoloration of the skin and deeper long-term damage that can thin the skin making it less elastic over time. I advise my patients to purchase sunscreen based on the active ingredients and not the front of the label. Zinc and titanium are physical sunblocks- they physically block UV from hitting the skin.
Any other sun protection tips?
Please consider balancing the risks of excess UV exposure and the need for sun protection. Remember to avoid peak hours of UV exposure, seek shade, and remember the role of sun-protective clothing in your routine. Limiting the use of sunscreen products to exposed areas will reduce the amount of sunscreen products needed. Many of the products that tested positive for benzene were recalled and continue to be recalled.
Can I be tested for benzene exposure?
Benzene itself does not last long in the bloodstream. A urine test can be obtained to test for benzene metabolites such as phenol. Urine can also be tested for other metabolites including muconic acid and S-phenylmercapturic acid. These urine tests are available at commercial laboratories and have been used to screen workers at high risk for occupational exposure to benzene.
Remember... UV from the sun (and other sources) is broken down into UVA and UVB rays. UVA penetrates deeper into the skin and causes premature aging of the skin (fine lines, freckles, discoloration, thinning of the skin, sagging, etc). Think UVA Ages the skin. UVB rays are primarily responsible for causing sunburns and reddening the skin because these rays hit the skin in more superficial layers. Think UVB Burns the skin. Physical sunscreens tend to block both types of UV as they are broad spectrum while chemical sunscreens can vary.