A Carcinogen in My Sunscreen?! What We Need to Know About Benzene

A Carcinogen in My Sunscreen?! What We Need to Know About Benzene

Okay, folks, it’s time to grab a snack and strap in because today we’re going on a journey through the wild jungles of the 2021 Benzene in Sunscreen Fiasco.

At this point, the story is already circulating in major news outlets, magazines, and health sites, so even if you don’t know the details, you’ve probably at least heard rumblings about “carcinogens in popular sunscreens.”

So, today we’re going to take a closer look at what’s going on.


First, Let’s Hit the Highlights

The basic rundown of the situation is this. On May 25, 2021, an online pharmaceutical company called Valisure released a report that showed detectable levels of a chemical called benzene in dozens of popular Western sunscreen brands like Neutrogena, Sun Bum, and Banana Boat. Valisure is well-known for running tests on the products they sell, and they’ve been in the news before for detecting possible contaminants in other drugs.

Valisure’s CEO made a statement calling benzene “one of the most studied and concerning human carcinogens known to science.” Sounds terrifying, right?

The report made sure to heavily underscore the fact that benzene is a “known human carcinogen,” and Valisure’s CEO made a statement calling benzene “one of the most studied and concerning human carcinogens known to science.” Sounds terrifying, right?

Naturally, the public has picked up the headlines and sound bytes from this report and run with it. There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation and fearmongering floating around online and especially on social media right now, so I wanted to step in and hopefully inject a little bit of calm and reason into the discussion.


Benzene: What It Is, and What It Isn’t

Before we go any further, I want to clarify that benzene has nothing to do with avobenzone or oxybenzone. These are standard sunscreen filters, and I know the names appear similar, but they have nothing to do with what we’re talking about.

Benzene is something you would never actually see on an ingredient list because it’s not supposed to be there. As in, nobody wants it to be there, including the manufacturer. It would be more costly and time-consuming for manufacturers to put benzene into a product than to leave it out, so anytime benzene is present, it’s a trace contaminant.


So Then, What Is Benzene?

Benzene is a chemical compound present in petroleum products (e.g., gasoline), wildfire smoke, volcano emissions, cigarette smoke, cleaning products, plastics, and adhesives. According to the CDC, not only is it normal to find benzene in outdoor air, but you’re likely to find higher amounts of it in indoor air, especially if you’re exposed to indoor secondhand smoke.

It’s also common to find tiny amounts of it in drinking water, fruits, veggies, dairy, and fish. In fact, the FDA has known that trace amounts of benzene can occur in soft drinks since 1990, and they’ve said it’s not a public health concern.

Basically, just existing means that you’re being exposed to low levels of benzene.

I’ve seen news articles call it an “industrial solvent,” which is accurate and sounds very serious. But, as always, context is essential. Why? Because water is technically an industrial solvent, too. “Solvent” just means that benzene is present in a formula to make it perform well. In some cases, like with gasoline and forest fires, benzene is just a natural, unavoidable component.

TL;DR: Small amounts of benzene exist in outdoor air, gasoline, food, and even drinking water. You ingest and inhale trace amounts of it every day. It’s wise to limit your benzene exposure, but it’s impossible to prevent it entirely.


The Cancer Controversy

Benzene has been linked to certain cancers like leukemia. However, benzene is most likely to be harmful when it’s inhaled in high quantities. This would include a factory worker who handles large quantities of benzene compounds or someone who inhales lots of gasoline fumes regularly.

benzene in sunscreen
Unsplash/Aditya Naidu

The most widespread cause of benzene exposure is actually cigarette smoke. Cancer.gov says that mainstream cigarette smoke accounts for about half of all benzene exposure in the U.S.! For smokers, inhaling cigarette smoke makes up 90 percent of their benzene exposure. Yikes.

Now that we know inhalation is the primary concern for benzene exposure, let’s talk about topical absorption since that’s the big fear attached to this sunscreen controversy.

Good news: Scientists agree that “benzene is poorly absorbed dermally.” This means that your skin is an excellent barrier and will not readily absorb benzene. So, unless you’re rubbing pure benzene onto yourself and eating your daily application of contaminated sunscreen, you’re in very little danger of developing benzene-induced cancer.

Good news: Scientists agree that “benzene is poorly absorbed dermally.” This means that your skin is an excellent barrier and will not readily absorb benzene.


Let’s Talk About Next Steps

I totally understand being hesitant to use a sunscreen contaminated with benzene, even if it’s only in tiny amounts. Fortunately, there are clear and easy steps that you can take that don’t require much effort.

Check this table of products (starting on page 12) to see if your sunscreen is affected.

Make sure to look at ALL of the columns, including UPC number, lot number, and expiration date. Not all batches of the named sunscreens are affected. If any one of the numbers on your bottle is different from the chart, your bottle is not part of the affected batches.

If you do have a contaminated sunscreen, hold onto it! You can set it aside if you wish or keep using it at your discretion, but keep it for now. Brands will likely start doing recalls, so you may get reimbursement in the future.

Don’t fall for the fearmongering! There will be talking heads giving quotes for news stories, talk shows, and beauty magazines. There will be a lot of pearl-clutching and finger-pointing. Remember that sunscreen is not the problem, and trace amounts of benzene are not quite as dire as they’ve been made out to be.


Bonus: Trustworthy Social Media Accounts to Follow

I may have a science background, but I would never call myself an expert. Fortunately, there are plenty of great social media accounts run by people who ARE experts, and they’re great sources of reliable information.

Check them out:

– Cosmetic chemist Stephen Ko: @kindofstephen

– Chemistry Ph.D and science educator Michelle Wong: @labmuffinbeautyscience

– Board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist Dr. Mara Evangelista-Huber: @dermomtology


What Do You Think?

Misinformation is dangerous (we STILL have hardcore anti-vaxxers in America thanks to one very horrible, very debunked study), and fearmongering is something I can’t tolerate. I respect Valisure’s efforts to keep consumers safe, but I definitely have some questions about the sunscreen report they published and the way that they’ve been garnering attention.

I hope that this post has helped clear up some of the noise and confusion surrounding benzene and sunscreen! Do you have more questions? Concerns? Helpful contributions? Drop them in the comments, and let’s keep the conversation going!


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