Dangerously high levels of benzene are present in many popular brands of sunscreen, including Neutrogena, Banana Boat and CVS Health, according to an independent pharmacy, which is asking federal regulators to recall the products from the market.
On May 25, the on-line pharmacy Valisure issued a press release warning it has detected benzene in 78 sunscreen and after-sun care products, with more than a quarter of products exceeding 2 parts per million (ppm); the level at which the FDA considers benzene in the products to be a concern.
Valisure has gained a prominent reputation in recent years, batch testing medications in their inventory to check the chemical composition before they reach consumers. The company has previously identified high levels of cancer-causing chemicals in several popular medications in recent years, which have resulted in massive Zantac recalls and metformin recalls, after pills were found to contain dangerous levels of the carcinogenic byproduct NDMA (N-nitrosodimethylamine).
Benzene is also known to increase the risk of cancer, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has long declared is linked to fatal forms of leukemia and other cancers. The FDA considers it a solvent which should not be used in drug products if avoidable. However, if benzene is not avoidable, it should be restricted to 2 ppm, FDA regulations state.
In a recent batch testing by Valisure, 78 sunscreens, representing 27% of products tested, contained benzene; with some products containing three times the FDA recommended limit. Valisure officials point out that since most sunscreen products tested negative for benzene, this means it is not an unavoidable chemical in sunscreen products, meaning no sunscreen products on the market should be allowed to contain benzene.
According to Valisure’s findings, Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Weightless Sunscreen products dominated the list of products with the most benzene detected, with several batches containing more than 5 ppm of benzene, with some batches containing nearly 7 ppm. Other products with more than 2 ppm of benzene included CVS Health After-sun Aloe Vera Soothing Spray, Sun Burn’s Cool Down gel, Neutrogena Beach Defense Spray Body Sunscreen and Fruit of the Earth’s Aloe Vera Gel.
Many other products contained levels of benzene which were below 2 ppm.
As a result of its findings, Valisure sent a citizen’s petition (PDF) to the FDA, calling for a recall of all benzene-containing sunscreen or after-sun care products.
“Benzene is one of the most studied and concerning human carcinogens known to science. Its association with forming blood cancers in humans has been shown in numerous studies at trace levels of parts per million and below,” Valisure CEO and founder, David Light, said in the press release. “The presence of this known human carcinogen in products widely recommended for the prevention of skin cancer and that are regularly used by adults and children is very troubling.”
Benzene Health Risks
Benzene is an industrial chemical that has been associated with the development of several fatal forms of cancer, leukemia and other conditions, such as AML, Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Hairy Cell Leukemia (HCL), Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDL), Myelofibrosis and Myeloid Metaplasia, Aplastic Anemia and Thrombocytopenic Purpura.
Heightened benzene levels released into the environment can cause a multitude of complications for those exposed to the chemical. Benzene is a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature and has a sweet odor that is highly flammable. Benzene evaporates into the air very quickly and its vapor is heavier than air causing it to sink into low-lying areas.
The chemical only dissolves slightly in water and will float on top of water causing a danger to drinking water, wildlife, and those who enter the water. People can be exposed to the chemical from leaks from underground storage tanks or from hazardous waste sites containing benzene can contaminate well water. People working in oil industries that make or use benzene may be exposed to the highest levels of it.
Long-term side effects of benzene exposure have been proven to cause anemia, which is a condition that develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin. Essentially, the chemical causes bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can damage an individual’s immune system. DHHS has determined long-term exposure to benzene can significantly impact blood cells, to the extent it causes cancer such as leukemia, a cancer of the blood-forming organs.
Valisure has been linked to a number of large, high-profile recalls and revelations about cancer-causing chemicals in commonly prescribed drugs in recent years. Perhaps the biggest recall linked to a Valisure investigation was the Zantac recall, which came after the independent pharmacy revealed the heartburn drug could contain thousands of times the FDA’s limit on NDMA, which has been linked to cancer.
In addition, the pharmacy also was the first to warn of NDMA problems in some metformin products, leading to recalls of the diabetes drug, and has also recently reported the presence of benzene in hand sanitizers, which are already undergoing a string of recalls due to the presence of methanol, or wood alcohol.