Johnson & Johnson recalls 5 aerosol sunscreens. Experts urge caution when using spray sunblock.

Dermatologists and skincare specialists extol the power of sunscreen year-round. And in the midst of record-breaking temperatures and blazing rays, sunscreen is a must-have for everyone this summer. Those looking to stock up before their next trip outside, however, may be surprised to learn that an increasingly popular form of sunscreen — aerosols — may be more problematic than advertised.

It's a fact that came to the forefront on Thursday when Johnson & Johnson issued a recall of five aerosol sunscreens due to the detection of "low levels of benzene," a cancer-causing agent, in some samples. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes it as "a chemical that is a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature." The products that will be pulled as a result of the finding are Neutrogena's Beach Defense, Dry Sport, Invisible Daily and Ultra Sheer, along with Aveeno's Protect and Refresh spray.

Johnson & Johnson issued a recall of its Neutrogena Ultra Sheer sunscreen after a cancer-causing chemical was detected in some samples. (Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
Johnson & Johnson issued a recall of its Neutrogena Ultra Sheer sunscreen after a cancer-causing chemical was detected in some samples. (Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

In a statement, J&J urged consumers to "stop using these specific products and appropriately discard them," but added that it's unlikely anyone has been harmed. "Benzene is ubiquitous in the environment. Humans around the world have daily exposures indoors and outdoors from multiple sources," J&J said adding, "Benzene can be absorbed, to varying degrees, by inhalation, through the skin, and orally." The company noted that the levels of benzene found in the sunscreens would "not be expected to cause adverse health consequences" but that they issued the recall anyway "out of an abundance of caution."

Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says that benzene has been detected "at very small levels" in many aerosol sunscreens. He echoes J&J in saying that it's not a huge risk. "Skin exposure to benzene at these low levels is unlikely to cause harm to our health," says Zeichner. "However, now that we know benzene is present in the products, it is hard to justify exposure to a known carcinogen, even if the risk is small."

While the detection of benzene is worrisome, experts say it's not the only reason to think twice about aerosol sunscreens. On its website, the Environmental Working Group — a nonprofit that researches contaminants in consumer products — warns against them. "Sunscreen sprays pose an inhalation risk and may not coat the skin enough to ensure proper protection," the organization writes, adding that the FDA has "proposed that all spray .... be tested to ensure they cannot be inhaled deep into the lungs." Consumer Reports has also urged against buying them, saying they may irritate asthma in kids.

Zeichner agrees that they should be used with caution, but doesn't think they need to be eliminated entirely. "Generally speaking, spray sunscreens are considered to be as effective as other forms of sunscreen if you are using it the right way," he says. "Hold the can one inch from the skin and spray until the skin glistens, then rub in. Be cautious not to spray into the wind and do not spray directly into your face. You can use the spray on your face, but spray into your hands then apply it to your face."

The American Academy of Dermatology has a similar policy, recommending that individuals "spray generously," directly on the skin, and "rub it in thoroughly" and "never spray sunscreen around or near your face or mouth." EWG is more cautious, suggesting it should never be directly sprayed on skin. "If you must use a pump or spray, apply it to your hands first and then wipe it on your skin," EWG tells Yahoo Life.

In terms of the gentlest products, Zeichner recommends looking for those containing minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Known as "physical blockers," these work by reflecting the sun, whereas "chemical blockers" absorb UV rays. "If you have sensitive skin, you can consider sticking to a mineral sunscreen that contains zinc oxide as its UV blocker," says Zeichner. "They can be used across all skin types but may feel heavier or be more difficult to rub in compared to traditional chemical sunscreens."

Overall, he says any sunscreen is better than none at all. "The best sunscreen is the one you are ultimately using," he says. "So whether it is a cream, lotion, gel, or stick, it won't work unless you actually use it."

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