It's paramount to understand that sunscreen does not include benzene as an ingredient. So when benzene is detected in sunscreen—as it was in a number of popular sunscreens and suncare products in 2021—it is a result of contamination. Discovered by pharmacy group Valisure, which routinely audits consumer goods, the report shows benzene contamination in 78 of the 294 products tested. While this news is certainly alarming, measures have been taken to ameliorate the situation. To find out more, we consulted Dr. Dendy Engelman and Dr. Ranella Hirsch.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Dendy Engelman is a board-certified dermatologist and member of Byrdie's Beauty & Wellness Board.
- Dr. Ranella Hirsch is an expert in the fields of cosmetic and laser dermatology and board-certified dermatologist.
What Is Benzene?
Benzene is a chemical derived from coal tar with trace amounts often found in synthetic fragrances, explains Engelman. "Benzene is a known carcinogen and is linked to cancer and nervous system issues," she tells us. "Short term, it can cause irritation and redness on the skin if applied topically."
Multiple research reports on benzene conclude that any exposure to the chemical is harmful. The FDA's own research points to chemicals found in sunscreen showing up at high levels in the blood, which is why Valisure has recommended that the FDA issue a recall for any contaminated items.
Benzene In Sunscreen
It's illegal to include "toxic" ingredients, such as benzene, in household products. Again, benzene found in sunscreen is due to contamination during production. According to Dr. Ranella Hirsch, researchers verified this by separately testing six active ingredients to see if they degraded and produced benzene. "The answer was 'no,'" confirms Hirsch.
Research and product testing are here to keep us safe and not fearful of household products, she reassures us. "You should take comfort in the fact that once a contaminant is identified the information was shared. There are mechanisms in place when things like this happen," says Hirsch.
Is Your Sunscreen Safe?
You should cross-reference your sunscreen products with Valisure's list to make sure your SPF isn't affected. And make sure you consciously dispose of any contaminated products per US Environmental Protection Agency's Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) guidelines.
The Importance of Sunscreen
Experts stress that people shouldn't lose sight of how important daily sunscreen use actually is. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., affecting 1 in 5 Americans in their lifetime. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is caused by sun exposure in 86 percent of cases.
"Getting people to wear sunscreen as much as recommended is tricky anyway," Dr. Engelman says. "But, there is a lot of misinformation out there about sunscreen and the ingredients in it."
The Bottom Line
The discovery of a known carcinogen in many popular sunscreens instilled fear and anger in many consumers. However, the industry and its regulators are working toward rectifying such irregularities and keeping us informed while doing so. As a result, we know which suncare products are contaminated with benzene—so that we may dispose of them as needed—and can continue to wear sunscreen that has been deemed safe.
Smith MT. Advances In Understanding Benzene Health Effects and Susceptibility." Annu Rev Public Health. 2010;31(1):133-148.
Matta MK, Zusterzeel R, Pilli NR, et al. "Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial." JAMA. 2019;321(21):2082-2091.
The Skin Cancer Foundation. "Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics."