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Benzene In Sunscreen? What’s the Latest?

Last summer we were told about benzene in sunscreen. 25 million products were pulled off shelves. But is benzene gone? Where's the FDA?

No doubt you have heard the slogan “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.” I have never found that tag line inviting myself, but it has become quite famous. We have a different slogan to share: “What You Put On Your Skin Does NOT Stay On Your Skin!” It actually gets absorbed into your bloodstream. The skin is not an impenetrable barrier. Last year around this time we reported that there was benzene in sunscreen. Not all sunscreen, mind you, but some very popular brands that were applied using a “convenient” aerosol spray. Read about that debacle at this link.

What Brands Were Affected?

Many readers wanted to know if there was benzene in sunscreen products they were using. Valisure, a testing laboratory in New Haven, Connecticut, reported that dozens of brands were contaminated with benzene.

According to Consumer Reports (March 31, 2022):

“The Food and Drug Administration and manufacturers seem to have found Valisure’s testing credible: Prompted by those results, companies have now recalled more than 25 million products from the market, including Aveeno and Neutrogena aerosol sunscreens and Old Spice spray deodorant.”

“Independent testing like Valisure’s is a critical part of the drug and product safety system because it can catch problems that the FDA, with its limited budget, might miss.”

Did your eyes glaze over at the number 25 million? That is an unbelievable number of products pulled off shelves! Here is a link to some of the products that J&J pulled from the market.

You will find Valisure’s FDA Full Citizen Petition “containing lists of products where benzene was detected” at this link. Testing information is in Table 2. Look for the *.

A Reader Wants to Know: Is There Still Benzene in Sunscreen?

Q. Last summer I read that my favorite spray-on sunscreen contained benzene. Is that still a problem?

A. You are right that last July the FDA announced a “voluntary recall” of some Neutrogena and Aveeno aerosol sunscreen products because of the presence of benzene. We were among the first to alert our readers to this problem!

We also warned readers about octocrylene at this link. This compound may have led to formation of benzophenone.

FDA Response to Benzene in Sunscreen:

On June 9, 2022 the FDA answered questions about benzene contamination in drugs and other consumer products but failed to provide a current list of products to avoid. Here is the FDA’s summer update.

“Q: What is the risk from using drugs contaminated with benzene?

A: The health consequences of benzene exposure depend on the amount, route, and length of time of exposure, as well as age and preexisting medical conditions. FDA recommends consumers do not use products that are being recalled or those hand sanitizers FDA recommends consumers should not use.

“In small amounts over long periods of time, benzene can decrease the formation of blood cells. Long term exposure to benzene through inhalation, oral intake, and skin absorption may result in cancers such as leukemia and other blood disorders.

“FDA continues to monitor the quality of drugs and, when appropriate, encourages retailers to remove products from store shelves and online marketplaces when issues arise.”

Voluntary vs. Mandatory Recalls:

Did you read and understand the FDA’s last sentence above? At the risk of being painfully redundant, here it is:

“FDA continues to monitor the quality of drugs and, when appropriate, encourages retailers to remove products from store shelves and online marketplaces when issues arise.”

The key phrase is “encourages retailers to remove products from store shelves…”

The Merriam-Webster definition of encourage includes this:

“to attempt to persuade: URGE”

Please note that the FDA has not required a recall. It has not forced companies to remove benzene in sunscreen or hand sanitizers. It “encourages” retailers to remove such products from shelves. Does that give you a great sense of comfort? What if a retailer chooses to ignore such “encouragement?”

How does the benzene get into products such as sunscreen or antiperspirant or deodorant sprays?

Here is the FDA’s Q&A:

“Q: Is benzene in drugs a new problem? Why have there been so many recent reports of drugs containing benzene?

“A: While benzene is not usually used in the manufacture of drugs, the contamination may be related to inactive ingredients in drugs such as carbomers (thickening agents), isobutane (a spray propellant), or other drug components made from hydrocarbons (chemicals made of hydrogen and carbon).

“FDA has recommended the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) remove (or “omit”) certain carbomer monographs from their compendium that allow for unacceptable levels of benzene (a USP monograph is a written document that provides the quality expectations for a medicine or ingredient). FDA and USP are working on the official removal of those carbomers and are planning to provide manufacturers with a period of time to reformulate products using safer drug components to avoid causing supply disruptions from the immediate removal of the carbomer monographs.”

Are you satisfied with FDA’s explanation about benzene in sunscreen?

Here is the FDA’s response to the Valisure Citizen Petition:

“In March 2021, FDA received a citizen petition raising concerns about the level of benzene in certain hand sanitizers and other products. Subsequently, two other petitions were filed raising concerns about the level of benzene in spray sunscreens, spray antiperspirants, and other drug and cosmetic products. FDA evaluates and assesses the information provided in citizen petitions of this type and, if appropriate, initiates an independent testing and verification process. This process includes securing product samples and performing independent evaluation of collected samples to assess the data presented in the citizen petition. If FDA’s testing raises any safety concerns, then FDA will work with manufacturers to address those concerns. We are going through that process with each of these citizen petitions. During this time, FDA has also been working with companies on multiple recalls related to the identification of unacceptable levels of benzene in drugs.”

Lack Of Transparency About Benzene in Sunscreen:

The FDA is careful not to reveal what it has found in its testing of consumer products like sunscreens, antiperspirants “and other drug and cosmetic products.” We are told that if “FDA’s testing raises any safety concerns, then FDA will work with manufacturers to address those concerns.”

What about informing the public in a transparent way what the testing has revealed? Why won’t the FDA actually require a recall of tainted products? Why should this be a totally voluntary process? If a company or retailer chooses not to comply with the FDA’s “encouragement,” what can the consumer do? How will we even know if a product is problematic?

What the Australian Government Did About Benzene in Sunscreen!

Unlike the FDA, the Australian regulatory agency names names and recalls affected products. Here is a link so you can see for yourself.

The TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) in Australia makes it very clear that:

“Benzene levels in sunscreens sold in Australia must be below 2 parts per million (ppm). Although exposure at the levels detected would not be expected to cause serious adverse health effects, and risks to users are considered low, the sunscreens are being recalled to ensure consumer safety.”

What to Do About Benzene in Sunscreen and Other Products?

Although aerosol sprays may be convenient, you might want to switch to a cream or lotion this summer while the FDA continues to monitor for benzene. If the contamination is coming from an aerosol propellant like isobutane, cream from a tube might not pose a problem. We say might because some of the recalled products in Australia were creams.

Here is what the EWG (Environmental Working Group) has to say about benzene in sunscreen and how you can “Choose A Safer Sunscreen.”

“Benzene is a sweet-smelling, petroleum-derived toxic chemical widely recognized to cause cancer and other serious health effects, with no safe level for human exposure.

“The substance has been detected in sunscreen sprays, lotions and gel-based products, with the highest levels found in spray or aerosol sunscreens from several different brands. It’s unclear why these products are contaminated with this dangerous substance, but initial FDA reports suggest the source may be inactive petroleum-derived ingredients like thickening agents, spray propellants and antifungal preservatives.”

“Benzene is a well-studied chemical, recognized as carcinogenic by regulatory bodies that include the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and International Agency for Research on Cancer, among others. The presence of benzene in aerosol sunscreens is especially concerning, because it can be both inhaled and absorbed through the skin.”

Here is a link to EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens.

Should you wish to avoid benzene in your deodorant, you may want to check out this link.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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