Benzene is a chemical that is formed naturally (volcanoes, forest fires, crude oil) and synthetically (resins, gasoline), and it is one of the most widely used chemicals in the United States as well as other countries. In the US, roughly 80% of benzene is produced to quickly and cheaply make other chemicals necessary for the production of everyday products. Benzene has also been proven to cause various types of blood cancers mainly by causing bone marrow failure. The carcinogenic risks of high levels of benzene and human exposure has been studied and documented for centuries. Even low benzene exposure can be harmful.
Benzene is used to make everything from rubbers to dyes to various plastics and resins. One thing it should never be used to make is sunscreen. Unfortunately, benzene has been found in a range of highly popular sunscreens on the market. Online pharmacy and lab Valisure released a report in June 2021 identifying varying levels of benzene discovered in 78 popular sunscreens and after-sun products. Sunscreen application is something doctors advise using daily from six months on. What this means is that the presence of even small amounts of benzene in sunscreens can add up to dangerous and potentially deadly exposure levels quickly over time.
At room temperature, benzene is either a light yellow liquid or colorless. Other general qualities of benzene include:
- A sweet odor
- Highly flammable liquid
- Evaporates into air very quickly
- Floats on top of water
- Heavier than air
- Sinks into low lying places
Classified by the Environmental Protection Agency/EPA as a known human carcinogen, benzene is proven to cause cancer in humans, most typically after long term exposure exceeding one year. While long-term exposures can cause cancers, acute exposures and low benzene exposure can also cause negative health issues. Put differently, there is no safe or healthy way to be exposed to benzene for anyone of any age—this is true for humans and animals that have been studied.
Federal and State Regulations
Federal and state regulations around benzene use and exposure are mostly limited to occupational and environmental exposure limitations. For instance, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) limits benzene exposure in a traditional workday workroom to 1ppm and requires the use of special breathing equipment should there be a consistent or temporary potential for exposure levels exceeding that amount in an 8-hour workday. There are also strict requirements around labeling, clothing, personal protective equipment, exposure safety plans and more. The federal and state regulations around benzene exposure have served to reduce the use of the chemical in recent years but it still remains very popular.
Benzene can enter the human body in multiple forms—via inhalation, absorption and ingestion; and because of its prevalence in so many everyday things, contact is very possible for pretty much anyone.
Common Sources of Benzene Exposure
Common sources of benzene exposure include:
- Occupational exposure: working at places where high levels of benzene are consistently in the air and around include places like oil
- refineries, dye and detergent manufacturers, pesticide production and various chemical plants. Those individuals working around high
levels of industrial emissions are at a very high risk of cancer and should take every precaution available to limit exposure, including gloves, protective clothing, eye protection and breathing equipment.
- Smoking: Tobacco smoke contains a lot of toxic substances (over 700) for first and second-hand smokers, including a high level of benzene. Roughly half of benzene exposure in the US is attributed to cigarette smoke. Because benzene is found in environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) it means that it is not just the individual smoking the cigarette that is being harmed by the benzene exposure but those that are around the cigarette smoke as well.
- Hazardous waste sites: Proximity to a hazardous waste site or a leak from an underground storage tank has caused benzene exposure and deaths to nearby communities. The EPA lists benzene as a hazardous waste (as well as an environmental air pollutant) and while there are strict federal and state hazardous waste regulations around benzene disposal, leaks and other exposure-based instances have happened.
Benzene Exposure Effects
“There is no safe level of exposure to benzene, and all exposures constitute some risk.” This was one of the many concerning conclusions published in a 2010 study looking at benzene health and susceptibility.
Have you been exposed to small or large amounts benzene? The potential is very real and present in your everyday life. Exposure can take place in the air via inhalation and directly on your body topically or by ingestion. Breath, blood and urine tests can also be used to measure benzene levels in an individual.
Long term exposure (one year+) has been a proven as a cancer risk. The primary way that benzene exposure takes place is by breathing it in, often unknowingly. Filling up your car with gas, smoking a cigarette (or taking in cigarette smoke second-hand) or its’ presence in many workplaces are common sources of benzene exposure. While outdoor air contains small levels of benzene from things like gasoline fumes, the primary research around a Benzene long-term exposure cancer risk has to do with smoking cigarettes.
Some immediate signs of acute benzene exposure to look out for include:
- Headache and sleepiness
- Loss of appetite
- Irritated skin (redness, bumps)
- Irritated eyes
- Nausea and dizziness
- Loss of consciousness
Benzene can also enter the body topically—meaning on your skin. Think of it this way—when you fill up your tank with gas and some spills on your arm, there is the potential for a small amount of benzene to get into your body. With that exposure analogy in mind, you can see why it is so concerning to now discover that benzene is in a product that you put all over your body, multiple times per day: sunscreen. While toxic substances are not allowed to be in consumer products, their presence is found far too often; and sometimes at alarming levels. Another recent benzene discovery in a topical consumer product reported by Valisure were traces of benzene is various popular hand sanitizers.
Benzene Exposure Action Plan
When you are dealing with a known benzene exposure, some things you can do to limit exposure and impact and get it off include:
- Go outside and get fresh air: if you can’t smell it, you probably aren’t near it anymore and any acute symptoms should begin to calm town. When you are breathing benzene, you usually know it so when you get fresh air you also get away from it, you should start to feel better.
- Take a long shower with soap and water washing all the areas that may have touched or been irritated by the benzene exposure.
- Change your contaminated clothing safely: you do not want to keep the clothes you had on and should dispose of them immediately after taking them off safely to ensure that you do not spread exposure in removing them. Place contaminated clothes in a plastic bag before putting them in the trash to ensure that no additional contamination occurs on your clothes, body or others that might be helping you.
- Thoroughly clean your glasses and remove contact lenses if necessary
- Sit down and rest/eat if you are feeling dizzy or nauseous (more common physical sensation as a result of inhalation versus topical application)
- Seek medical attention if necessary: Doctors can test your levels of benzene and also put you on a treatment plan to alleviate temporary exposures symptoms you might be feeling.
Benzene in Sunscreen
Recently, benzene has been found in many of the most popular sunscreens and after-sun products on the market. How did it get there? Why is it there?
While benzene is not a listed ingredient in any sunscreen on the market, something in the manufacturing and production process is ultimately, placing it into the product and onto your skin. Another proposed theory as to the “how it got there” is that the benzene is a byproduct of another raw material used in sunscreen. The majority of the benzene sunscreens were spray bottles, a very popular form of sunscreens for parents to quickly apply on their children and themselves on the go. The SPF level and size of the contaminated sunscreen bottles did not seem to be a factor in whether a bottle contained benzene in this particular study.
Wearing sunscreen is still highly recommended for everyone over six months to avoid burns, skin cancers and other things that come with too much sun exposure. But sunscreen should not help you avoid one cancer just to potentially get another. Benzene in sunscreen is a problem and a potential cancer risk, especially for more sensitive individuals that might be more susceptible to benzene exposure, such as young children and the elderly.
And there might be more given that there are over 11,000 registered sunscreens and sun care products currently on the mass market for purchase. In the study conducted by Valisure, scientists analyzed 294 unique batches from 69 brands of sunscreen and after-sun products. A great starting range for analyzing product safety, there are more brands and also many more batches that have been made since the findings have been published. To find 78 different sunscreens within this sample is both substantial and alarming. 14 of the 78 contaminated batches contained over 2 parts per million of benzene—an amount well over the FDA limit. Translation: it is not just trace amounts of benzene in some of these sunscreens.
Unfortunately, many of the sunscreens found to have varying amounts of benzene in them have been on the market for years (with large marketing budgets) leaving many consumers to wonder if they have unknowingly and repeatedly been applying benzene to their skin. The research and testing is ongoing and the professional advice is simple: continue using sunscreen but make sure it is on the safe list, free of any benzene. For those that feel they are experiencing health issues that may be related to a toxic sunscreen, you should seek professional medical attention immediately.
Which Sunscreens Contain Benzene?
Following the publication of their findings, Valisure petitioned the FDA to recall all the sunscreens that were over a traceable level of benzene. Consumer product manufacturers make money on their products and are legally responsible for putting safe products on the market and ensuring that every step of the production process is safe. Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of most of the benzene-containing sunscreens voluntarily recalled the offending products and are conducting internal investigations. Sunscreen brands that produced a product found to contain benzene include: Aveeno, Banana Boat, Coppertone, EltaMD, Goodsense, Neutrogena, Sun Bum & Up & Up. According to Valisure, the following sunscreens contained some level of traceable benzene in their product:
- Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion- SPF 50
- Babyganics Continuous Spray Kids Sunscreen- SPF 50
- Banana Boat:
- Kids Max Protect & Play Sunscreen- SPF 100
- Protective Dry Oil Clear Sunscreen Spray + Coconut Oil- SPF 15
- Kids Sport Sunscreen Lotion Spray- SPF 50
- Simply Protect Kids Sunscreen Spray
- Ultra Defense Ultra Mist Clear Sunscreen Spray
- Ultra Mist Deep Tanning Oil Continuous Clear Spray
- Ultra Sport Clear Sunscreen Spray
- Coppertone Whipped Sunscreen Lotion Spray- SPF 50
- CVS Health:
- 70 Beach Guard Sun Sunscreen Lotion- SPF 70
- After-sun Aloe Vera Soothing Spray
- After-sun Aloe Vera Moisturizing Gel
- Sheer Mist Spray Broad Spectrum Continuous Spray Sunscreen- SPF 70
- Ultra Sheer Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Lotion- SPF 100, SPF 45
- Sport Clear Spray Sunscreen- SPF 100+
- Live Better Body Mineral Spray Sunscreen- SPF 60
- ELTA MD UV Aero Broad-Spectrum Full Body Sunscreen Spray- SPF 45
- Equate Lotion Kids Sunscreen Lotion- SPF 50
- Ethical Zinc Natural Clear Zinc Sunscreen- SPF 50
- Fruit of the Earth Aloe Vera Gel
- Goodsense Sunscreen, SPF 30
- La Roche-Posay Anthelios Sunscreen Lotion Spray- SPF 60
- Max Block
- Sport Sunscreen Lotion Water Resistance Blue- SPF 50
- Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum Water Resistant- SPF 30
- Beach Defense Oil-free body Sunscreen Spray- SPF 100
- Beach Defense Spray Body Sunscreen- SPF 50
- Cool Dry Sport Water-Resistant Sunscreen Spray- SPF 50, SPF 70
- Invisible Daily Defense Body Sunscreen Broad Spectrum- SPF 60
- Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Face Sunscreen- SPF 50
- Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Broad Spectrum- SPF 30 Spray; SPF 45 Lotion
- Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Water Resistant Sunscreen- SPF 70
- Ultra Sheer Weightless Sunscreen Spray- SPF 100+; SPF 70
- Raw Elements Eco Formula Sunscreen Lotion- SPF 30
- Solimo Sheer Face Sunscreen Lotion- SPF 55
- Sun Bum
- After Sun Cool Down Aloe Vera Spray
- Cool Down Gel
- Oxy Free Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Lotion- SPF 50
- SunBurnt Advanced After-Sun Gel
- Everyday Lotion Sport Sunscreen Lotion- SPF 70
- Everyday Lotion Ultimate Sheer Sunscreen lotion- SPF 55; SPF 70
- Up&Up Clear Aloe Vera Gel
- Sport Lotion Sunscreen- SPF 50
- Sunscreen Sport- SPF 50
The Valisure benzene sunscreen complete list can also be found here.
Benzene and Cancer Risk
The cancer risk posed by benzene exposure is real and documented. The toxicity of this commonly used chemical was discovered back in the 1800’s when it was being used extensively by many industries. Benzene-related cancer risks are related to the blood, making it especially worrisome when it comes to sunscreen (and other topical consumer products) which is placed directly on the skin with great
frequency. At the simplest level, benzene-related blood cancers happen because the benzene causes the cells in the body to stop working properly. When this happens, individuals can become anemic and have low immune systems, to name a few issues found to come from blood cell dysfunction.
Some of the specific blood cancers and other maladies that benzene has been proven to cause include:
- Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
- Aplastic anemia
- Myelodyslastic syndrome (MDS)
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)
- Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
- Multiple myeloma
- Aplastic anemia
It is not just cancer that has been attributed to benzene. Prolonged benzene exposure in women has resulted in irregular periods and smaller ovaries. While studies are ongoing as to whether it impacts a human fetus, it has been shown to cause a lower birth weight, delayed bone development and bone marrow harm in animals.
Benzene Exposure and Your Health—What Now?
Everyone is different and the negative impact benzene has on your health depends on so many factors including: the length and nature of your exposure and your overall health.
While some benzene exposure that an individual experiences may be unknown and unavoidable, others are unacceptable and avoidable, such as sunscreen. Immediately, you should continue using some form of sunscreen but find a tested and safe product that does not contain any benzene of other toxic chemicals. You can research your sunscreen and its safety on various consumer watchdog sites. Secondly, you should seek out proper medical attention if you feel like you are experiencing health issues potentially related to short or long-term benzene exposure. Health issues stemming from benzene exposure are real and the sooner you take action around them, the sooner you can begin working on a health plan to feel better.