Even during winter, sunscreen should be part of your daily routine. But it's important to make sure you're not accidentally using a recalled product.
In May, independent pharmaceutical testing company Valisure found that 78 lots of sunscreens and sun care products contained benzene, a known carcinogen that has been linked to blood cancer and other illnesses. Forty products were found to have "significantly detected" levels of benzene out of the 78 lots. While short-term use of a product with small traces of benzene is unlikely to cause harm, the concern is long-term use of a product people use frequently, such as sunscreen.
In response to the findings, Johnson & Johnson announced in July that it was voluntarily recalling select Neutrogena and Aveeno aerosol spray sunscreens "out of an abundance of caution."
The recall affects the following products:
- Neutrogena Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen
- Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen
- Neutrogena Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen
- Aveeno Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen
If you have these aerosol sunscreen products, Johnson & Johnson recommends you dispose of them and contact the company for a refund.
On Sept. 30, Coppertone (owned by Beiersdorf) also issued a recall of some lots of five of its aerosol sunscreen products, manufactured between Jan. 10 and June 15. Some lots or batches of the following products are affected:
- Coppertone Pure & Simple SPF 50 aerosol sunscreen (5 oz)
- Coppertone Pure & Simple Kids SPF 50 aerosol sunscreen (5 oz)
- Coppertone Pure & Simple Baby SPF 50 aerosol sunscreen (5 oz)
- Coppertone Sport Mineral SPF 50 aerosol sunscreen (5 oz)
- Coppertone Sport Spray SPF 50 aerosol sunscreen, travel size (1.6 oz)
Importantly, only some lots of the affected sunscreen are being recalled. Specific lot numbers can be found here. Like the earlier recall, Coppertone says this is only "out of an abundance of caution" and no adverse events have been reported. Follow your local guidelines for information on how to dispose of aerosol sprays.
This benzene problem doesn't seem to be rooted in a particular brand of sunscreen, but in certain batches or "lots," according to Valisure founder David Light. He added that some batches and products from a single brand had high levels of benzene, while other batches and products from the same brand didn't have any: "It really does appear to be a batch-to-batch problem."
The findings are detailed in Valisure's May 24 petition to the Food and Drug Administration to recall the product lots that contain dangerous amounts of benzene. Benzene, an industrial chemical normally found in crude oil and cigarette smoke that can also be used in manufacturing plastic and pesticides, is a known human carcinogen that can cause harm with long-term exposure, which is exposure for more than one year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Leukemia (cancer of blood-forming organs), anemia (a decrease in red blood cells), excessive bleeding and decreased ovary size have all been linked to long-term benzene exposure, according to information from the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services.
Valisure's findings are concerning because there is no safe amount of benzene in any product, according to the FDA, which refers to it as a Class 1 Solvent. However, the agency does give conditional use approval for benzene of 2 parts per million if "use is unavoidable in order to produce a drug product with a significant therapeutic advance." But benzene isn't necessary for sunscreen production. Of the 294 batches of sun products tested, 26 had benzene levels lower than 2 ppm, and 14 had levels containing 2 ppm or more -- up to three times the FDA conditional amount, according to Dermatology Times.
"There is not a safe level of benzene that can exist in sunscreen products," stated Dr. Christopher Bunick, an associate professor of dermatology at Yale University, in Valisure's press release. "Even benzene at 0.1 ppm in a sunscreen could expose people to excessively high nanogram amounts of benzene."
Benzene is a known contaminant in the petroleum industry, Light says, and there are a lot of petroleum products that make their way into cosmetics, lotions and creams.
"In this case it really seems to be a manufacturing contaminant problem, not an inherent problem with sunscreen," Light says. "People should still continue to use sunscreen, I think, is an important message to get across."
In total, 294 sun care product lots were tested from 69 brands. The following brands made sun products (sprays, lotions, gels, etc.) that have lot numbers Valisure is asking the FDA to recall: Neutrogena, Sun Bum, CVS Health, Fruit of the Earth, Raw Elements, SunBurnt, Goodsense, Banana Boat, TopCare Everyday and EltaMD.
Some of those products include:
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Weightless Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70 and SPF 100+
- Neutrogena Beach Defense Oil-Free Body Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
- Fruit of the Earth Aloe Vera Gel
- Banana Boat Kids Max Protect & Play Sunscreen C-Spray, SPF 100
- EltaMD UV Aero Broad-Spectrum Fully-Body Sunscreen Spray, SPF 45
- Sun Bum Cool Down Gel
- Raw Elements Eco Formula Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- CVS Health After-sun Aloe Vera Soothing Spray
- Goodsense Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Not all products made by these brands had detectable levels of benzene. If you own products produced by one of the brands above, check Tables 2 and 3 (PDF) in Valisure's petition, as well as the lot number on the product itself. If you decide to throw away a product, follow the US Environmental Protection Agency's guidance on disposing hazardous waste. Then be sure to pick up a sunscreen that's not on the list, because protecting against sun damage is still important.
The continued importance of sunscreen shouldn't be understated, and Valisure's suggestion that some sun care products have been contaminated doesn't undermine sunscreen's role in protecting you against sunburn, skin cancer and early skin aging. The FDA states it regulates sunscreen as a drug because the active ingredients in it make a drug claim -- "to help prevent sunburn or to decrease the risks of skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun."
In a statement to CNET, a representative from the FDA said the agency "takes seriously any safety concerns raised about products we regulate, including sunscreen. While the agency evaluates the submitted citizen petition, we will continue to monitor the sunscreen marketplace and manufacturing efforts to help ensure the availability of safe sunscreens for US consumers."
"The agency reminds manufacturers, distributors, repackagers and importers they are responsible for the quality of their products and urges manufacturers to test their ingredients to ensure they meet specifications and are free from harmful contamination," the statement read. As of Sept. 20, the FDA has not issued a recall of any sunscreens -- though it did post J&J's voluntary recall on its recall website as a public service. The FDA also posted Coppertone's recall on its website.
"This is obviously a prevalent problem for a variety of manufacturers and a variety of brands," Light says, adding that the FDA will most likely issue a recall for more batches than Valisure requested, simply because it only had so many resources to run initial tests.
"The fact that it's a serious problem is really what we're trying to underscore," he says. "I can practically guarantee you that the problem is much bigger than just those 40 lots that are currently out there."
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.