What to Know About the Carcinogen Benzene Found in Some Popular Sunscreens

Woman putting sunscreen on her arm.

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Key Takeaways

  • Benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, has been detected in some popular sunscreens.
  • Experts believe this is likely due to a manufacturing error.
  • It’s still unclear what impact benzene in sunscreen may have on people. But experts say it's unlikely it'll cause harm.

As the weather begins to warm, most people are lathering on the sunscreen as they head outdoors.

But a new report detected a known cancer-causing chemical in 78 different popular sunscreens and after-sun products.

Valisure, a pharmacy that tests its own products, tested nearly 300 sprays and lotions. Benzene, a carcinogen, was detected in 27% of samples. Some batches contained up to three times the restricted Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concentration limit of two parts per million.

Based on its findings, Valisure is requesting a recall of the contaminated batches and is asking the FDA to better define limits for benzene contamination in drugs and cosmetics.

Valisure CEO David Light tells Verywell that the analysis happened while trying to find a “clean” sunscreen. Soon, he said, it became “clear that this was a more broad issue.” So, the company did a broader sweep of the sunscreens available on the market.

Benzene isn’t something that’s naturally in sunscreen, Light points out. And, given that it appeared in some batches of a brand’s sunscreen and not others, he suggests that this is a manufacturing issue.

“We did find this in chemical and mineral-based sunscreens,” Light says, noting that the contamination could even come from inactive ingredients in the sunscreens.

Why Is Benzene Dangerous?

Benzene is a colorless, highly flammable liquid with a gasoline-like odor. It’s found in crude oils and as a by-product of oil-refining processes. It’s also used as a solvent and in the synthesis of numerous chemicals.

It's also a known carcinogen, meaning it’s been linked to cancer. It's specifically thought to increase the risk of lymphoma, leukemia, and other blood cancers.

“Benzene is a chemical that can be very toxic,” Jamie Alan, PhD, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Verywell. “There is acute toxicity, which can occur when a person is exposed to a large dose all at once, and chronic toxicity, where a person is exposed to smaller amounts over time.”

Exposure to benzene can cause neurological symptoms and can affect the bone marrow, leading to anemia, excessive bleeding, and damage to the immune system.

It’s important to note that there is no scientific link to developing cancer or other benzene-related side effects from contaminated sunscreen at this point. “Benzene toxicity is possible from sunscreen, but in reality it is unlikely,” Alan says.

Still, Light says, “there’s no reason benzene should be in sunscreen.” Benzene in sunscreen is “adding some level of risk that shouldn’t be taken, especially since it can be produced cleanly.” However, Light adds that it’s “hard to quantify how much that risk is.”

What This Means For You

Right now, there's no clear evidence that the levels of benzene found in some sunscreens will put you at high risk of complications. You should still keep using sunscreen as an essential tool for preventing skin cancer.

Which Sunscreens in the Study Contained Benzene?

Valisure found that benzene contamination in sunscreen was “different from batch to batch, even in the same brand,” so it’s difficult to say that all of a certain brand of sunscreen is contaminated.

A full list of the sunscreens that contained benzene during testing is available on Valisure’s citizen petition. However, the list included these popular sunscreen brands:

  • Aveeno
  • Banana Boat
  • Coppertone
  • EltaMD
  • Goodsense
  • Neutrogena
  • Sun Bum
  • Up & Up

While Light urges the FDA to take action and for manufacturers to look at their own benzene levels in their products, he stresses the importance of continuing to use sunscreen. “Sunscreen should absolutely still be used,” he says. “It’s very important for the reduction of skin cancer risk.”

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  1. National Library of Medicine. Benzene. Updated June 5, 2021.