FDA Asked to Recall Sunscreens

Recently, the FDA was asked to recall sunscreens and sun aftercare products that contain a byproduct carcinogenic contaminant called benzene. This byproduct contaminant is not something you would find listed on the back of the bottle, nor is it in every batch or lot of a particular brand. If you’re anything like my trusting friends, you’ll take one glance at this and ignore it thinking “oh, I only use the natural stuff that Shelley recommends, so it won’t contain benzene”. NOPE! Even some of the natural brands containing zinc as the active ingredient have this contaminant. Again, benzene would never be listed on the list of ingredients.

Over the weekend, my friends and I were sitting by the pool, and one of them started spraying on a Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70 by Neutrogena, as she was telling me that she saw my email. I nearly knocked over my drink, grabbing my phone and shrieking “OMG, that’s on the list”, as she continued to spray herself. Fortunately, you can refer to Valisure for information on this byproduct. Together, we compared the lot numbers on the bottom of her can to the Valisure list and with a sigh of relief discovered that her lot number was not listed.

Just to be clear, in order to find out if your sunscreen or sun aftercare product has been contaminated, take a look at pages 12 and 13 of the Valisure list which shows the lot numbers next to the brand names. It is sorted by which products contain the most benzene. Compare this to what you have at home for the recall.

What Are Lot Numbers

When the FDA asked to recall sunscreens the companies were able to review their lot numbers. Many products on the market have lot numbers that are typically found on the bottom of the bottle. These alphanumerics are codes that allow manufacturers to track various batches that are made in the lab. These codes contain information about the date and location where the products were made. They come in handy when a specific batch or lot needs to be recalled for any reason. 

How Benzene Got There

Sunscreen manufacturers are not intentionally adding benzene to their products. Rather, it ends up in the bottle as a byproduct of other ingredients that are used. The manufacturers are not carefully testing each batch for the presence of benzene. During manufacturing, benzene can be used as a solvent to separate other compounds. While it should be completely removed it is possible for small amounts to make their way into the final product. 

Two preservatives, sodium benzoate and phenoxybenzoate could be converted into benzene under certain conditions. Sodium benzoate is particularly problematic because it is converted to benzene in the presence of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). See below for the complete reaction. Fragrances containing 2-phenoxyethanol are also susceptible to being converted into benzene.  

benzene chemical compound
Photo by DNA at Work

How Benzene Causes Cancer

According to the FDA, benzene causes cancer by destroying DNA and bone marrow. It also acts as a central nervous system depressant. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies benzene as Group I carcinogen. No amount of benzene is safe. However, the FDA does allow for certain drugs to contain small amounts of benzene if it is absolutely unavoidable. This conditional limit is set to 2 PPM. Because not all sunscreens were found to contain benzene, the FDA should not allow any amount to be present; it is clearly avoidable. 

​In a previous post I wrote about sunscreen “ingredients” that should be avoided. These should not be confused with the benzene byproduct, as they are not the same. If you need a sunscreen that doesn’t contain harmful ingredients or this carcinogenic contaminant check out the list I have on my Amazon shop, as I have already done the comparison at the time of this post. 

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