Just before Memorial Day, online pharmacy and lab Valisure announced that its testing had found benzene, a known carcinogen, in batches of 78 widely-available sunscreen and after-sun products. The company has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to recall these products, , which include batches from Neutrogena, Banana Boat, CVS Health, and other brands. More than three-quarters of the products are sprays.
“We’re asking our patients to put sunscreen on from 6 months of age, telling them to do it their entire life, their whole body, multiple times a day,” Christopher G. Bunick, MD, PhD, associate professor of dermatology at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., said in an interview. If benzene-contaminated sunscreen proves to be a widespread problem, he said, “the benzene amounts can add up to a significant chronic exposure over a lifetime.”
In the Valisure statement announcing the findings, Bunick, who is also quoted in the petition, said that “it is critical that regulatory agencies address benzene contamination in sunscreens, and all topical medications at the manufacturing and final product level, so that all individuals feel safe using sunscreen products.”
Benzene is not an ingredient in sunscreen, and Valisure’s petition suggests that the findings are a result of contamination somewhere in the manufacturing process, not of product degradation.
“This isn’t a sunscreen issue, it’s a manufacturing issue,” said Adam Friedman, MD, professor and chief of dermatology at George Washington University, Washington. “We don’t want those things to be blurred.”
When asked to comment on Valisure’s findings, an FDA spokesperson said, “The FDA takes seriously any safety concerns raised about products we regulate, including sunscreen. While the agency evaluates the submitted citizen petition, we will continue to monitor the sunscreen marketplace and manufacturing efforts to help ensure the availability of safe sunscreens for U.S. consumers.”
Both Johnson & Johnson, Neutrogena’s parent company, and Banana Boat issued statements reiterating that benzene is not an ingredient in their products.
Assessing the Risks
There is a risk of patients taking away the wrong message from these findings.
“People already have ambivalence about sunscreen, and this is just going to make that worse,” Friedman said in an interview. He pointed out that benzene is present in car exhaust, second-hand smoke, and elsewhere. Inhalation exposure has been the primary focus of toxicology investigations, as has exposure from ingesting things such as contaminated drinking water – not via topical application. “We don’t know how effectively [benzene] gets through the skin, if it gets absorbed systemically, and how that then behaves downstream,” he noted.
On the other hand, ultraviolet radiation is a well-established carcinogen. Avoiding an effective preventive measure such as sunscreen could prove more harmful than exposure to trace amounts of benzene, ultimately to be determined by the FDA.
“Just because those particular products do pose a risk, that doesn’t erase the message that sunscreens are safe and should be used,” Bunick said. “It’s not mutually exclusive.”
And then there’s the fact that the benzene contamination appears to be fairly limited. “The majority of products we tested, over 200 of them, had no detectable amounts of benzene, and uncontaminated sunscreen should certainly continue to be used,” David Light, CEO of Valisure, told this news organization.
With headlines blaring the news about a carcinogen in sunscreen, patients will be reaching out for advice.
“The number one question patients will have is, ‘What sunscreen do you recommend?'” said Bunick. “The answer should be to pick a sunscreen that we know wasn’t contaminated. Reassure your patient the ingredients themselves are effective and safe, and that’s not what’s leading to the contamination.”
Friedman agrees. “We need to be mindful. Dermatologists need to be armed with the facts in order to counsel patients: Sunscreen is still a very important, effective, and safe, scientifically based way to prevent the harmful effects of the sun, in addition to things like sun protective clothing and seeking shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.”
As alarming as Valisure’s findings may seem initially, Bunick noted a silver lining. “The consumer, the public should feel reassured this report is out there. It shows that someone’s watching out. That’s an important safety message: These things aren’t going undetected.”
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.