HealthNatural Beauty

Latest Sunscreen Recall Raises Concern Over Chemicals

Credit: Neutrogena; Aveeno

Every summer, millions of people enthusiastically spray or rub sunscreen on their skin.

With sun care being a $2 billion-a-year industry in the United States alone, it’s no wonder we have it ingrained into our psyche that sunscreen is the ultimate protection against skin cancer, aging, and sunburns. 

But the latest sunscreen recall might have us think otherwise. 

Sunscreen Recall

On July 14, 2021, the parent company, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), issued a voluntary recall of five Neutrogena® and Aveeno® aerosol sunscreen products.

They were pulled after independent testing had found they were contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical called benzene.

CVS Health also pulled two store-branded aloe vera products due to similar findings.

While a few sunscreens did test positive for benzene, many did not. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that most sunscreens are loaded with questionable ingredients that likely shouldn’t be going on your skin.

The use of sunscreen, however, is important. So what do you do? Read on to find out. 

Which Sunscreens Were Recalled?

The recall involved four Neutrogena sunscreen sprays and one Aveeno spray. They were voluntarily recalled by J&J “out of an abundance of caution”:

  • Neutrogena® Beach Defense® aerosol
  • Neutrogena® Cool Dry Sport aerosol
  • Neutrogena® Invisible Daily™ defense aerosol
  • Neutrogena® Ultra Sheer® aerosol
  • Aveeno® Protect + Refresh aerosol

According to a statement made by J&J, “While benzene is not an ingredient in any of our sunscreen products, it was detected in some samples of the impacted aerosol sunscreen finished products…Consumers should stop using these specific products and appropriately discard them.”

Specific lots of all recalled Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreens can be found here.

While Neutrogena’s spray sunscreens ranked highest in benzene content (almost three times the FDA-recommended maximum level of benzene), other brands also tested positive at lower levels. Companies like Good Sense, Banana Boat, CVS, and even all-natural mineral sunscreen brands like Raw Elements tested positive for the chemical.

After the recall was announced, CVS also stopped selling the following products:

  • CVS Health After Sun Aloe Vera
  • CVS Health After Sun Aloe Vera Spray

While these CVS products have not been recalled, the company paused its sales as a precaution to the products testing positive for trace amounts of benzene.

However, one of the CVS benzene-contaminated products called After-Sun Aloe Vera Moisturizing Gel is still for sale.

Why Were The Sunscreens Recalled?

In total, 294 sun care product lots were tested from 69 different brands. Of those, 78 samples tested positive for benzene.

Valisure, the independent lab that tested the products, found that contamination appeared in specific batches of sunscreen rather than specific brands.

The report from Valisure can be found here.

The report “found multiple sunscreen products that contain levels of benzene that significantly surpass the 2 ppm conditional FDA restriction.” They also state that many samples contained “significantly detectable benzene and some batches contained up to 3.1 times the conditionally restricted limit.”

Valisure requested the FDA to recall the identified batches of sunscreen products that pose a health risk to the public.

According to J&J, daily exposure to benzene in these products “at the levels detected in internal testing would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences.”

But Dr. Christopher Bunick, associate professor of dermatology at Yale University, claims that there are no safe levels of benzene. In Valisure’s press release, Dr. Bunick notes that “Even benzene at 0.1 ppm (parts per million) in sunscreen could expose people to excessively high nanogram amounts of benzene.”

Sunscreens That Were Not Recalled

Other samples of sun care products that tested for benzene at levels of 1 parts per million or higher included the following:

  • Sun Bum Cool Down Gel
  • Fruit of the Earth Aloe Vera Gel
  • Raw Elements Eco Formula Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30

While these products have not yet been recalled, it would be wise to avoid them given the toxic nature of benzene, even at lower levels.

Why Is Benzene Dangerous?

Benzene is a known human carcinogen, with the FDA recognizing the chemical as a serious danger.

The FDA lists benzene as a “Class 1 solvent” that “should not be employed in the manufacture of drug substances, excipients, and drug products because of their unacceptable toxicity…However, if their use is unavoidable in order to produce a drug product with a significant therapeutic advance, then their levels should be restricted” and benzene is restricted to 2 ppm for these special circumstances.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines benzene as a carcinogen and lists “inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, skin and/or eye contact” as exposure routes.

Exposure to benzene has been associated with a wide range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases like cancer and aplastic anemia. 

In a 2010 review of benzene research, the authors note that “there is probably no safe level of exposure to benzene, and all exposures constitute some risk in a linear, if not supralinear, and additive fashion (1).” 

The authors also cite a comment from a 1939 study that investigated the hematotoxicity of benzene, stating, “exposure over a long period of time to any concentration of benzene greater than zero is not safe.”

Benzene has been specifically linked with blood cancers like leukemia, making this chemical particularly concerning as it is found in sun care products. 

A study published back in 2020 found that chemical sunscreen ingredients are “systematically absorbed after one application, and some ingredients can stay in the blood for at least 3 weeks (2).”

Many other studies have also demonstrated the effects of different sunscreens and how quickly their ingredients penetrate and absorb into the skin after application (3)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

Why Is There Benzene in Sunscreen?

Since benzene is not an added ingredient in sunscreens, no one really knows for sure how it ended up in sun care products.

The only logical method by which it could have ended up in these products is via the manufacturing process. 

“The root cause of the benzene found in recalled sunscreen products is the focus of ongoing investigation,” FDA spokesman Jeremy Kahn said.

According to Scott Faber, the senior Vice President of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “Benzene could be a byproduct of the process of making the chemicals that companies sell to the formulators of personal care products and sunscreens. Or it could be that some of those chemicals break down into benzene, although that seems less likely.”

“But it’s very alarming, especially since the FDA does not require companies to test ingredients for contaminants, nor does it require testing for such chemicals at a finished product stage,” he added.

This is why it is best to choose sunscreens made from natural ingredients, instead of ones made from chemical cocktails.

Which Is the Best Natural Sunscreen?

Whether you have sensitive skin or you simply want to avoid sun care products involved in present or future sunscreen recalls, a natural sunscreen will be your best bet. 

Chemical sunscreens aren’t much different than natural ones. They provide the same level of SPF as chemical sunscreens do, but with a reduced risk of exposing yourself to nasty chemicals like benzene.

When choosing a natural sunscreen, look for ones with non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that physically block the sun’s rays and shield your skin from UV rays. 

With that being said, there are a lot of suncare products out there that can make the selection process a little confusing.

So here’s a list of some of the best natural and organic sunscreens to protect your skin all year long (with a little help from EWG):

3rd rock sunblock

3rd Rock Sunblock Sunscreen Lotion, Unscented, SPF 35

Natural, organic, and toxin-free SPF 35+ sunblock sunscreen – Made with food-grade ingredients only. Hypoallergenic, sweat, and water-resistant.

kabana sunscreen

Kabana Green Screen Organic Sunscreen, Unscented, SPF 32

Kabana uses an 86% certified organic ingredient formula that is baby and child-safe with just 8 ingredients. It is biodegradable, fragrance-free, chemical-free, and vegan.

100% PURE Everywhere Sun Stick

100% PURE Everywhere Sun Stick, SPF 30

The convenient stick design by 100% pure is perfect for applying over the face and body. It contains non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to protect the skin against both harmful UVA and UVB rays (without the use of nasty chemicals).

All Good Sunstick

All Good Sunstick, Unscented, SPF 30

The All Good Sunstick is hypoallergenic and gentle for children. It’s made from non-nano zinc oxide and skin-saving oils like jojoba, coconut and avocado. Excellent for sensitive skin, water resistant and reef friendly. 

amara sunscreen

Amavara Transparent Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30

Natural, organic, and toxin-free SPF 35+ sunblock sunscreen – Made with food-grade ingredients only. Hypoallergenic, sweat, and water-resistant.

How Can I Protect My Skin From Sun Without Sunscreen?

Getting enough sun during safe hours, when UV levels aren’t staggering high, is the best way to help your body synthesize vitamin D.

Outside of these hours, when UV levels are high and not so beneficial for our skin, it is best to wear either natural sunscreen, or practice sun-smarts.

Here are a few ways you can ensure your skin is protected when UV levels aren’t so safe for our skin:

  1. Wear a loose, long-sleeved blouse. Get one that is airy and not too heavy, and light in color to refract the sun.
  2. Wear a wide-brimmed hat.
  3. Wear natural sunscreen with non-nano zinc oxide (listed above).
  4. Seek shade. You can use trees, shade structures or use your own sunshade tent.

The Bottom Line

The latest sunscreen recall found dangerous levels of benzene in sun care products that were above the threshold recommended by the FDA.

In response, J&J announced that they were voluntarily recalling select Neutrogena and Aveeno aerosol spray sunscreens. The recall affected 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.

Benzene is a known human carcinogen, specifically linked to cancers of the blood like leukemia. This makes it particularly concerning, given sunscreen ingredients have been well-studied for their ability to absorb into the skin and enter the bloodstream.

Instead of conventional sunscreen, you can opt for organic, natural options that will protect your skin just as well as products made with questionable ingredients.

You can also protect yourself from the sun by avoiding it at dangerous high-UV hours. If you must be out in the sun all day, opt for a hat, or long-sleeved blouse to keep the sun at bay.

Various sunscreens from Johnson & Johnson that were recalled with text - sunscreen recall: traces of cancer-causing chemical benzene found in conventional sunscreen. Use these safe, healthy, natural alternatives instead

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