Harmful Ingredients in Sunscreen
Skin, Lip and Body Care

Study Finds Harmful Ingredients in Sunscreen—How to Choose a Safe Product

+ Pamela Friedman

The news was startling: an online pharmacy had found harmful ingredients in sunscreen.

Yet you need sunscreen to protect your skin from damaging UV rays.

What to do?

Study Shows Harmful Ingredients in Sunscreen

Valisure LLC, an online pharmacy, recently issued a press release warning that it found benzene—a known carcinogen—in 78 sunscreens and after-sun products.

Benzene is a colorless or light yellow chemical that has a sweet odor and is highly flammable. It evaporates into the air very quickly and dissolves only slightly in water. It is found naturally in crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke, and is also used to make plastics, resins, nylon and synthetic fibers, some types of lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies benzene as “carcinogenic to humans,” based on sufficient evidence that the chemical can cause acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Exposure has also been linked with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also classify benzene as a known human carcinogen.

Long-term exposure to benzene can also increase the risk of:

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • A low white blood cell count
  • A low platelet count

How Valisure Found the Harmful Ingredients in Sunscreen

Valisure regularly tests the products it sells, and this time tested sunscreens. Specifically, investigators looked at six different sunscreen ingredients:

  1. Avobenzone
  2. Oxybenzone
  3. Octisalate
  4. Octinoxate
  5. Homosalate
  6. Octocyclene

The company acquired sunscreen and after-sun care product samples from many retailers and in many different formulations. Of course, this was only a small sample and didn’t include all sun care products.

Results showed that multiple samples contained significantly detectable benzene. Some batches contained up to 3.1 times the “conditional” safe limit. The FDA has no safe limit for benzene, but it does allow 2 parts per million (ppm) if use is “unavoidable in order to produce a product with therapeutic benefits.” But benzene isn’t necessary for sunscreen production, so it shouldn’t contain any benzene.

The results varied from batch to batch, even within a single brand.

  • Benzene was found in 43 out of 224 sunscreens and in 8 out of 48 after-sun products.
  • Among sunscreens, the highest average concentrations of benzene (2-6 ppm) were in four sprays from the same brand (Neutrogena).
  • The next highest average concentrations were in 12 products that were primarily sprays but included 4 lotions.
  • Active ingredients in contaminated products were also listed in products that were not contaminated, so there’s no way to tell by the ingredients list which ones may contain benzene.

Valisure noted that these results are concerning because of recent findings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that showed sunscreen active ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream even after a single-use. Other studies show that the application of sunscreen specifically increases the absorption rate of benzene through the skin.

Chemical Ingredients SunscreenValisure Requests Recall of Products with Harmful Ingredients

Valisure sent a citizen’s petition to the FDA requesting a recall of the products they found to contain benzene. Though only some had high levels, Valisure requested the recall of all lots that contained the carcinogen. The affected products include those coming from the following brands:

  • Neutrogena
  • Sun Bum
  • CVS Health
  • Fruit of the Earth
  • Raw Elements
  • SunBurnt
  • Goodsense
  • Banana Boat
  • TopCare Everyday
  • EltaMD

Keep in mind that not all suncare products from these brands were contaminated. You can check tables 2 and 3 in Valisure’s petition to find the exact products and the results.

How to Avoid Harmful Ingredients in Sunscreen

Considering these test results, you may be wondering how you can be sure that the sunscreen you’re purchasing is safe. We have some tips to help.

1. Look for Physical Sunscreens

You can make it simple to avoid benzene in sunscreen by choosing only those sunscreens that use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as active ingredients.

These are called mineral sunscreens, and they form a protective seal over the surface of the skin, reflecting away UV light. Chemical sunscreens (like avobenzone and oxybenzone) contain compounds that absorb UV light and prevent it from penetrating the skin.

None of the sunscreens tested used mineral sunscreens. They all used chemical sunscreen ingredients that can be changed with exposure to the sun. Zinc oxide is considered the safest sunscreen ingredient you can use—safe even for children.

2. Check the Environmental Working Group’s Website

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tests sunscreens every year and lists their safest ones on their website. You can search their list, or type in a sunscreen you have already purchased to see how safe it is. The EWG also offers a free guide to safer sunscreens.

3. Choose One that Has an SPF of at Least 30

Doctors recommend that you use sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 30. Lower than that probably won’t give you the protection you need. Higher than that isn’t necessarily better.

Look also for the words “broad-spectrum” on the label. That means it protects against both UVB and UVA rays, and you need that protection.

4. Look for Dangerous Ingredients

When choosing a sunscreen, it’s best to avoid the following potentially dangerous ingredients:

  • Oxybenzone: Scientific studies have linked this active ingredient with hormone disruption and allergic reactions.
  • Octinoxate: Also linked to hormone disruption, and is known to harm coral reefs.
  • Homosalate: Linked to hormone disruption and may enhance the absorption of pesticides, including bug sprays.
  • Retinyl palmitate: This is a form of vitamin A that has been linked to skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin.
  • Other toxic ingredients: These include parabens, phthalate, PEG, and synthetic fragrances.

5. Avoid Spray Sunscreens

These may be convenient to use, but they disperse the ingredients in tiny droplets you may inhale. Those inhaled droplets can then enter your lungs and move into your bloodstream. It’s safer to use gels, creams, and lotions.

6. Avoid Combined Sunscreen/Bug Repellant Products

How convenient to apply your sunscreen and bug repellant at the same time! This isn’t wise, though, as studies suggest these combinations lead to increased skin absorption of the ingredients, which you don’t want, particularly with some toxic ingredients. Continue to buy and use these two products separately.

7. Check the Water Resistance

If you’re going to be sweating or swimming, make sure your sunscreen is water-resistant. These can not only protect you better in water but will last longer when you’re active and sweating.

The FDA has banned manufacturers from labeling their sunscreens as “waterproof” or “sweatproof.” Instead, labels can say “water-resistant” if the sunscreen has proven to remain effective in water for either 40 or 80 minutes.

Rescue + Relief Spray SunscreenAfter the Sun? Forget the Harmful Ingredients

What about after sun care?

We recommend our Rescue + Relief Spray. It has no ingredients in it that can degrade to benzene. It’s full of nurturing ingredients that will help whisk heat away from the skin, cooling it down and repairing any sun damage.

It works so well that “Allure” named this “One of the Best All Natural Beauty Products.” For extra cooling, store it in the refrigerator or cooler.

How do you find safe sunscreen?

Benzene in sunscreens, after-sun sprays, gels, lotions and creams. (2021, May 25). ConsumerLab.com. https://www.consumerlab.com/answers/benzene-contamination-in-sunscreen-and-aftersun/benzene-sunscreen/

Benzene. (n.d.). American Cancer Society | Information and Resources about for Cancer: Breast, Colon, Lung, Prostate, Skin. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/benzene.html

Valisure detects benzene in sunscreen. (2021, May 25). Valisure. https://www.valisure.com/blog/valisure-news/valisure-detects-benzene-in-sunscreen/

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