Dozens of popular sunscreens have been contaminated with benzene, a chemical that can cause cancer, report finds

·4 min read

After losing out on an entire summer to the pandemic last year, Americans are eager to lather up with sunscreen and head to their nearest beaches now that vaccines have stifled coronavirus transmission in the U.S.

But a recent report found dozens of popular sunscreen products have been contaminated with a chemical, called benzene, that is known to cause cancer.

Valisure, a Connecticut-based online pharmacy and laboratory, tested and analyzed 294 unique batches from 69 different companies and found 78 sunscreen and after-sun care products contained the chemical.

Benzene is not an ingredient of sunscreen products. Health experts speculate the chemical may have contaminated these products during the manufacturing process, as benzene levels varied between batches of the same product from the same companies.

The company’s citizen petition is calling on the Food and Drug Administration to recall 40 sunscreen and after-sun care products found to contain higher levels of benzene. The brands include Neutrogena, Sun Bum, CVS Health and Fruit of the Earth.

Valisure also is requesting the FDA recall tested products made by Raw Elements, SunBurnt, Goodsense, Banana Boat, TopCare Everyday and EltaMD, although benzene levels in these products fell within the agency's allowable concentration limit of 2 parts per million.

In statements sent to USA TODAY, the companies said they were reviewing and evaluating information from the petition. Neutrogena topped the list of products with the highest levels of benzene.

“We take the information shared in the citizen’s petition very seriously and are acting with the utmost urgency,” the company said in a statement. “We are committed to making high-quality, safe and effective sunscreens available to consumers as sunscreen is critical to public health."

The report, published just after Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, comes just months after Valisure found benzene in 44 of 260 hand sanitizer products it tested in March.

“It is unfortunately apparent that benzene contamination is a broad and very concerning issue in the American consumer product supply chain, and it underscores the critical need for independent testing,” said David Light, founder and CEO of Valisure.

The FDA said in a statement to USA TODAY that it would continue to monitor the sunscreen marketplace and its manufacturing efforts while it evaluates the citizen petition.

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“The agency reminds manufacturers, distributors, repackagers and importers they are responsible for the quality of their products and urges manufacturers to test their ingredients to ensure they meet specifications and are free from harmful contamination,” the statement said.

The products ranged from lotions to aloe and gel, but more than half of the listed products were sprays. Health experts say sprays may be more dangerous than lotions because there’s a higher chance of inhaling the harmful contaminants.

Benzene is a chemical that can be found in both natural and manufacturing processes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can be found in volcanoes and forest fires, as well as crude oil, gasoline and cigarette smoke.

While benzene is among the 20 most widely used chemicals in the U.S., the American Cancer Society said benzene is known to cause cancer. Long-term exposure to benzene mainly harms the bone marrow and has been associated with blood cancers such as leukemia.

Some industries employ benzene to make other chemicals used in making plastics, resins, nylon, synthetic fibers, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs and pesticides, the CDC says.

“To put it into context, benzene is all around us … it’s in tobacco smoke, it’s in gasoline, it’s in the air outside when we walk around,” said Dr. Min Deng, dermatologist at Medstar Health. “The indoor levels of benzene are higher than the outdoor levels of benzene.”

Any level of benzene is harmful to humans, but Deng urges consumers to continue to wear sunscreen, as the sun is known to cause the most common cancer in the United States – skin cancer.

According to the CDC, about 4.3 million adults are treated for the most common types of skin cancer – basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas – each year.

“The link between the sun and skin cancer is stronger than the link between smoking and lung cancer,” she said. “I would urge patients to review the list, find a product on the list that was tested as benzene contaminant-free and try to use those products.”

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sunscreen with benzene forces recall for several top brands