What you should know – Cleveland Clinic
In the past year, several popular sunscreen brands were pulled from shelves after tests showed they contained benzene, a chemical known for its potential to cause cancer. More than 75 sunscreen and after-sun sprays were originally recalled, and more have since been recalled.
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researcher say any detectable benzene level in sunscreens up to 2 parts per million should be a cause for concern. First reports The 2021 sunscreen recall revealed that benzene levels were above 6 ppm in some recalled products.
We spoke to a dermatologist Sherrie Bullard, MD, about the risks of benzene in sunscreen and what you should do to protect yourself and your skin. Her advice was clear: “Don’t stop using sunscreen!”
What is benzene?
The chemical benzene occurs naturally in things like gas, crude oil and cigarette smoke. That Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that benzene is also commonly used for industrial purposes — in the manufacture of plastics, rubber, pesticides and more.
We are all exposed to small amounts of benzene from outdoor pollutants, such as: As vehicle exhaust exposed. Your indoor air can also expose you to benzene as it is found in glues, paints, furniture wax and cleaning products. High benzene exposure is likely for people who work at gas stations, as well as firefighters, steel workers, printers, and other occupations.
How did benzene get into sunscreen?
The good news is that benzene was not intentionally added to sunscreen. It’s not exactly clear how it got there. The theory tested is that certain compounds contained in spray propellants can mix to form benzene.
Is benzene in sunscreen dangerous?
“Research on the risk of using sunscreens with some benzene content is ongoing,” says Dr. Bullard. “At this point we know that benzene pollutants can be dangerous in the environment. Scientists are working to answer other questions, such as whether benzene can be absorbed by the skin and how much sunscreen containing benzene would put someone at higher risk.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates sunscreen, has cleared it updated guide about the risk of benzene contamination. The FDA is also evaluating the source of the contamination and is proactively working with companies and retailers to remove products from shelves as needed.
Is Your Sunscreen Safe?
While the risks aren’t fully understood yet, the safest course of action for now is to avoid sunscreen sprays, says Dr. Bullard. These are the products that have been most commonly associated with benzene contamination.
The best sunscreen for your skin depends on many factors, including how much sun you get and any allergies you have. Resources like Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group have shared test results and recommendations across a range of brands.
Lotion-based sunscreens may contain chemical ingredients, but no benzene has been found. Choose one that says it “becomes clear” if you’re concerned about the opaque residue some leave behind.
If you want to avoid chemicals altogether, Dr. Bullard proposed a mineral sunscreen made with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
“Some people prefer mineral sunscreens. They’re less likely to cause allergic reactions like rashes that some people get from chemical sunscreen,” notes Dr. Bullard. “The main thing to remember is that they’re SPF 50 at most, so you need to apply them more often.”
You should apply sunscreen liberally to all exposed skin and reapply as often as directed on your product.
Why is sun protection so important?
The recall of sunscreens found to contain benzene is worrying shouldn’t stop us from using sunscreen. Using sunscreen is still very important for preventing skin cancer!
“It’s not just about putting sunscreen on when you go to the beach. We don’t have to lie in the sun on purpose to be exposed to UV rays,” emphasizes Dr. Bullard. “We are exposed to UV rays at all times, even on cloudy, overcast days. So sun protection is always required, except in the dark.”
Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun damage our skin.
“They can penetrate the skin through clothing and damage the DNA of our skin cells,” explains Dr. Bullard. “Unprotected UV rays can cause damage that accumulates over time and overwhelms our immune system so we can’t get rid of abnormal skin cells. This happens more as we get older. This is the mechanism by which UV exposure can eventually lead to the development of skin cancer.”