A Report Found the Carcinogen Benzene In 78 Popular Sunscreens

On the heels of the report, Johnson & Johnson is recalling five of its sunscreens. But this doesn't mean you should stop wearing sunscreen altogether.

It's the dead of summer, so chances are you've been putting your sunscreen stash to good use. But before you rub on another coat of SPF 50, you might want to do some quick research on the brand that you've been using (in addition to checking its expiration date, ofc).

First, yes, sunscreen itself is safe and can help protect against skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States (it also helps curb premature aging). But Valisure, an online pharmacy that conducts routine batch tests of common consumer health products, recently shared some not-so-amazing findings about some sunscreens that may already be on your shelf. On May 25, the company released a report after testing 294 sunscreens and sun aftercare products and found 78 of them contained benzene, a known carcinogen that has been linked to harmful effects in humans such as cancer and other serious medical conditions.

And now, Johnson & Johnson is voluntarily recalling five of its Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreens — some of which were mentioned in Valisure's report — after their own internal testing found low levels of benzene in some samples of the products, according to a company press release. (More on that, below.)

Benzene is not an ingredient intentionally used in sunscreens, but the products on Valisure's list were found to be contaminated with benzene."Benzene is a chemical that, when activated with exposure to the skin, blood, or organs, can affect changes in your DNA that cause mutations for cancers," says Madhuri Chadha, M.D., founder of Dr. Madh Skin Solutions and radiologist currently working in aesthetic dermatology. "Benzene is linked to blood cancers such as leukemia and other cancers and conditions like [acute lymphoblastic leukemia], [chronic myelogenous leukemia], Non Hodgkins lymphoma, and aplastic anemia," adds Dr. Chadha.

Here's what you need to know about this news, including how to find out if your favorite sunscreen made the list of products containing benzene.

benzene in sunscreen
Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels

Which sunscreens were found to contain benzene?

Several common household brands — including Sun Bum, Neutrogena, Banana Boat, and CVS-brand sunscreen — were all found to contain unsafe levels of benzene, according to Valisure's test. The contaminated sunscreens include both chemical and mineral formulas. (You can find the full list on page 12 of the report here.) Valisure is now petitioning for the Food and Drug Administration to recall the products on its list.

As for the Johnson & Johnson recall? On July 15, Johnson & Johnson voluntarily recalled — and is advising consumers to stop using — five of its Neutrogena and Aveeno aerosol spray sunscreens after benzene was detected in samples. The affected sunscreens: Neutrogena Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen, Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen, Neutrogena Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen, and Aveeno Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen. The recall applies to all can sizes and SPF levels, according to the press release, and you can check your Aveeno or Neutrogena sunscreen's lot number, label, and expiration date to confirm if yours is affected on Neutrogena's website.

To be clear, benzene isn't an ingredient intentionally included in any of the Johnson & Johnson products or the ones on Valisure's list; the products were found to be contaminated with benzene. So you want to check Valisure'sor Johnson & Johnson's list of impacted products rather than scanning your sunscreen's ingredient list to see whether "benzene" is listed. "We don't know the source of the benzene, but it could relate to how a particular ingredient was manufactured, where it was sourced, or how it moved through the supply chain," Tod Cooperman, M.D., wrote in a review of the Valisure report for ConsumberLab.com. (

It's also important to know that everyone is exposed to benzene frequently because it's found in the air from gas stations, vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoking, and certain manufacturing plants. As Martyn Smith, a professor of toxicology and the Kenneth Howard and Marjorie Witherspoon Kaiser Endowed Chair in Cancer Epidemiology at University of California at Berkeley, explained to the Washington Post, "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."

Still, the FDA lists benzene as a class one solvent, meaning that it should not be used in the manufacture of drug substances, excipients (substances added to drugs such as fillers or preservatives), and drug products, because "because of [it's] unacceptable toxicity" or "deleterious environmental effect." However, when a class one solvent (such as benzene) is "unavoidable in order to produce a drug product," it should be limited to concentrations of 2 parts per million (ppm). In its report, Valisure argues that sunscreen production does not require benzene and that the FDA should "better define limits for benzene contamination in drug and cosmetic products." Beyond the fact that any amount of benzene in sunscreens is concerning, 14 sunscreen samples actually tested above that 2 ppm threshold, containing between 2.78 and 6.26 ppm of benzene.

Johnson & Johnson didn't disclose exactly how much benzene was found in its sunscreens, but the company stated in its press release that "based on exposure modeling and the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) framework, daily exposure to benzene in these aerosol sunscreen products at the levels detected in our testing would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences." Still, the company decided to recall those five varieties of aerosol sunscreens "out of an abundance of caution," according to the press release.

In late September, Coppertone also announced a recall of five of its popular sunscreens after detecting benzene. "Daily exposure to benzene at the levels detected in these affected Coppertone aerosol sunscreen spray products would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences based on generally accepted exposure modeling by numerous regulatory agencies," said Coppertone in its news release. "Out of an abundance of caution, we are recalling certain lots of these specific aerosol sunscreen spray products."

The products include the five-ounce cans o Copperton Pure & Simple SPF 50, Coppertone Pure & Simple Kids SPF 50, Coppertone Pure & Simple Baby SPF 50, Coppertone Sport Mineral SPF 50, according to the Today Show, in addition to the 1.6-ounce can of Coppertone Sport Spray SPF 50. Those who have purchased the products can request a refund by filling out a form online.

What all this means to you as a sunscreen user: If the sunscreen you have is on this list or was one of the recalled Johnson & Johnson products, Dr. Chadha recommends that you throw it out immediately and switch to a sunscreen that's not on the list to get your UVA and UVB protection. (

Is sunscreen safe?

If you feel like there's been a lot of concerning sunscreen news lately, you're not imagining it. There's been a growing concern among consumers that you can never be too sure what's in the sunscreen you're using or if its claims are valid. In December 2020, the brand Purito came under fire for labeling its sunscreen as SPF 50 while independent lab results suggested it only provided SPF 19 protection. A lot of people have become wary of chemical sunscreens (formulas that incorporate chemicals rather than minerals to block UV rays) following reports that the FDA is evaluating their safety and that they may harm coral reefs.

"There's confusion and misinformation about sunscreen that unfortunately has led to growing skepticism and a general fear factor that sunscreens are dangerous when in fact not using them is more dangerous," says dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D. Although FDA testing is rigorous and standards are high, it's not a foolproof system, she adds. (

"Post-market consumer testing may often be different from preliminary formula testing for any number of reasons or factors," says Dr. Shamban. "I don't believe that most companies are trying to deceive the public or are overstating their potency, safety, or protection intentionally; however, there are some real failures within the systems that are cause for concern."

Regardless of your skin type, skin tone, or ethnicity, sunscreen should still be a top priority for you year-round. Dr. Shamban and Dr. Chadha both agree that mineral sunscreens (which will include titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in the ingredient list) are great options if you feel iffy about using chemical formulas. Either way, read through the list of sunscreens found to contain benzene and toss yours if it made the list or it is one of the recalled Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreens.

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