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Should You Worry About Benzene in Some Sunscreens?

Have you been slathering on the sunscreen? Are you concerned about reports that there is benzene in some sunscreens? Read the benzene backlash

In 1988 a song by Bobby McFerrin reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was titled “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” This mantra has been adopted by chemical companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, some physicians and even the FDA. The discovery of benzene in some sunscreens has lots of experts adopting the theme of Bobby McFerrin’s popular song.

Why Is Benzene in Some Sunscreens?

Several weeks ago, we alerted readers to the FDA’s research showing that sunscreen ingredients are absorbed through the skin. Some of the chemicals used to protect people from sunburn have hormone disrupting activity.

How Can You Choose A Safe Sunscreen?
Most people assume they are using a safe sunscreen, The FDA lacks safety data. Do YOUR eyes glaze over when you read chemical ingredients?

Now, add benzene to the sunscreen challenge. This industrial solvent is categorized as a carcinogen. It doesn’t belong in sunscreens.

Benzene Is a Contaminant, Not an Ingredient!

Valisure is a company that analyzes the chemical composition of medications so that consumers can have confidence in the quality of their medicines. This testing laboratory has released a report showing that a surprising number of sunscreens are contaminated with benzene.

The FDA says that drug companies should not use benzene in their manufacturing processes because it is toxic. If the benzene is unavoidable, however, the agency limits its concentration to 2 parts per million (ppm). Valisure detected benzene in eight brands of sunscreen at concentrations up to 1.99 ppm, while four brands contained amounts from 2.78 to 6.26 ppm.

Let’s get one thing straight. There is no good reason for there to be benzene in some sunscreens. It is not an intentional ingredient, nor is it necessary. The vast majority of sunscreens Valisure tested contained no benzene.

Valisure has also tested hand sanitizers for contaminants. It discovered that of the 260 different hand sanitizers it tested, 17% contained benzene. It wasn’t supposed to be there, either.

Worry…Don’t Worry?

Dermatology Times (May 25, 2021) noted that:

“Valisure, a pharmacy dedicated to batch testing medications before they reach consumers, found in a recent test that 78 different sunscreen and after-sun care products contained benzene, a potential carcinogen.” 

The company was so alarmed by what it found that it submitted a “Citizen Petition” to the FDA. It requests the recall of contaminated sunscreen and after sun products.

The Benzene Backlash:

An article in the Washington Post (June 5, 2021) has downplayed the danger of benzene in some sunscreens. It points out that benzene is ubiquitous:

“Benzene, the contaminant Valisure detected in the 78 products, is a component of gasoline and a frequently used solvent for rubber and waxes. It is also used in the extraction of oils from seeds and nuts, and in the manufacturing of detergents and pharmaceuticals. The chemical is found in the air from emissions from burning coal and oil, tobacco smoking, gas stations, and vehicle exhaust.”

The article goes on to quote a professor of toxicology about the widespread presence of benzene in the environment:

“It’s the building block for many chemicals in our world, including many drugs like aspirin and other things. It’s also found in all fossil fuels, and anytime you burn anything — from a wood-burning fire to a candle — you are exposed to benzene.”

A chemistry professor from McGill University in Montreal is also quoted:

“‘Because of our analytical capabilities, you can find contaminants in everything,’ he said. ‘If you look for it, you will find it.’ The presence of a chemical does not equal the presence of risk, Schwarcz added.”

In Other Words: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

According to David Light, CEO of Valisure:

“However, to put the 6 parts per million of benzene contamination found in sunscreen into perspective, the average benzene concentration in city air, according to the US EPA, is about 0.0003 parts per million in 2009, and is likely lower now. With benzene at a concentration roughly 20,000 times that which you usually find in city air, it certainly appears that this sunscreen contamination poses a more significant risk than what an individual would typically be exposed to.”

In addition, he points out that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has set 5 ppm as the maximum for short-term benzene exposure—fifteen minutes. If you are wearing sunscreen properly, it will be on your skin much longer than a quarter of an hour. Also, decades-old research demonstrates that sunscreen increases the ability of benzene to penetrate the upper layers of the skin (Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Aug. 8, 1997). 

Should We Worry about Benzene in Some Sunscreens?

The Washington Post implies that we shouldn’t be very concerned about benzene in some sunscreens because we don’t know “…how much benzene in contaminated sunscreen would get into a person’s blood.”

Sunscreens have been on the market for decades. It was only in the last few years that the FDA discovered that ingredients in sunscreens can get into the body. Remember, benzene is a carcinogen. It’s scary stuff, but it is not the only compound in sunscreens that concerns us.

The watchdog organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) has raised red flags about some of these chemicals:

“The ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone are all systemically absorbed into the body after one use (Matta 2019, Matta 2020), according to studies published by the FDA, which also found that they could be detected on the skin and in the blood weeks after no longer being used (Matta 2020). …

“This constant exposure to sunscreen chemicals raises concerns, especially because there is not enough safety data for most ingredients. We have even more concerns about ingredients such as oxybenzone, which have been linked to hormone disruption by numerous studies.”

EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens containing oxybenzone. To do so, however, you will need to read the fine print on the label very carefully.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy:

Over the last few decades we have heard chemical companies suggest people don’t need to worry about low levels of exposures. Asbestos in talc? Not a problem. BPA in baby bottles? Nothing to worry about. Low levels of lead in gasoline, paint chips or water pipes? Probably OK. Herbicide and pesticide residues in food? Relax! Phthalates in plastics and in cosmetics? Hardly worth mentioning.

You won’t find benzene listed on any labels. That’s because it’s not supposed to be there. To locate a list of products that had no detectable benzene, go to www.Valisure.com and look for Table 5 in the Citizen Petition to the FDA. You can also find a list of popular sun products without benzene at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.

Should You Worry About Benzene in Some Sunscreens?

Not surprisingly, People’s Pharmacy readers, like others, have been alarmed by this report. One wrote:

“It is truly upsetting that yet another product deemed safe to use by the FDA is in fact not safe. For me, the trust I had felt for the government has been shattered over recent years. How could they allow this toxic chemical in products? What else should I not trust?”

Another chimed in:

“It is truly alarming and concerning, both, that this dangerous chemical is found in sunscreens, and that the FDA appears to be completely asleep at the wheel while hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of innocent and unsuspecting citizens are using these dangerous products. Thank you, People’s Pharmacy, for bringing this report to light in your newsletter!”

Valisure has initiated a crowd-sourcing research project. This means that individuals can send the company their sunscreens for analysis. More details are available at www.Valisure.com.


Did you find this information of value? Are you concerned about FDA oversight? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. If you find this kind of information worthwhile, why not take a second to share it with a friend or family member. You can use the icons for email, Facebook or Twitter at the top of the page to help reach a wider audience. Thank you for supporting our work. 

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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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