Note: this is not a summary. For a summary, read our quick guide on all things related to sunscreen safety. Otherwise, enjoy!
On May 24, 2021, Valisure, a private drug quality assurance company, sends a letter to the FDA (seen here: Sunscreen Benzene List), claiming that it has found above-regulation levels of benzene in 78 out of 294 batches of popular sunscreen and after-sun products it tested. Benzene is a known carcinogen, though we are exposed to it in our daily lives from gas stations, vehicle exhaust, certain manufacturing, city air, etc. The FDA has stated that benzene should not be used to manufacture drugs unless it is unavoidable, but even when unavoidable, benzene levels should be restricted to 2 parts per million (ppm). Some of the products on Valisure's list register benzene levels of up to more than 6 ppm.
Obviously, that's not great. However, dermatologists and scientists are quick to note that 1) it's one report that hasn't been validated; and more importantly, 2) the benzene in these products is due to contamination, perhaps during the products' manufacturing process, and benzene is not an inherent ingredient in sunscreen. That's why, if you read the back labels of sunscreens, you won't find benzene on the ingredients list. The existence of benzene in these products is a mistake, not an innate characteristic of the product.
But what does this mean? Current advice is to throw away the products on the report, but continue using sunscreen!
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To those of us who are a little obsessive about details, the question then remains - if the benzene snuck into these products by mistake, how do we know they haven't snuck into the brands / products Valisure hasn't tested? Answer: we don't, but as a matter of risk-benefit analysis, it makes more sense to wear sunscreen than to forgo sunscreen, unless you want to deck out head to toe in protective clothing. There is a small chance that a small amount of benzene might be present in your favorite sunscreen, but we don't even know how benzene topically applied affects your body. We do know that sun exposure causes cancer. So, on the one hand, you have a tiny possibility of harm. On the other hand, you have a known certainty of harm.
Lastly, it's important to note that benzene is pretty much everywhere and hard to avoid, and we are exposed to it every day. According to the Washington Post, at the highest level of benzene noted in the Valisure report, "applying 10 ml of the contaminated sunscreen (approximately one application) could — in the worst-case scenario — result in absorbing about half the amount of benzene one gets from breathing city air in for a day."