Does Sunscreen Cause Cancer?

mature woman applying sunscreen

The Bottom Line

Certain brands of sunscreen have been found to contain benzene, but at levels low enough that they are not likely to cause any acute health effects. The use of sunscreen is still recommended, but concerned individuals should avoid products contaminated with benzene.  

is sunscreen bad for you

The Full Story

Benzene is a chemical that occurs naturally in the environment. It is used to make plastics, synthetic fibers, dyes, and detergents, and is present in motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline, and tobacco smoke. Benzene is also found inside homes, and may be present in certain types of wood, furniture, and even indoor air fresheners. Benzene can cause harmful health effects in humans and is a known human carcinogen. Acute exposures to high levels of benzene can cause dizziness, drowsiness, headache, and nausea, whereas chronic exposures to benzene are associated with blood disorders including certain types of leukemias. The current knowledge of benzene’s health effects is largely based on studies of humans with high-level workplace exposures occurring over years.

While occupational exposure to benzene is well described, it is also possible to be exposed to benzene at home or outdoors. Most human exposures to benzene occur through inhalation, but benzene can also be absorbed through the skin or the gastrointestinal system. The act of breathing in tobacco smoke, gas station fumes, or vehicle exhaust can result in benzene exposure. Fortunately, most non-workplace exposures to benzene are low-level exposures and are not strongly linked to adverse health effects.

In 2021, the independent testing company Valisure detected the presence of bnzene in multiple sunscreen products available in the United States.  Since benzene is not a known ingredient of sunscreen products, its presence likely represents unintentional contamination, although the source of the benzene is not known. The highest concentration of benzene found in sunscreen products in the Valisure study was 6.26 parts per million (ppm). This is significantly lower than the benzene concentrations associated with acute health effects, but a chronic exposure to this concentration could potentially be dangerous. After the Valisure report was published, Johnson & Johnson voluntarily recalled five types of Neutrogena® and Aveeno® aerosol sunscreens due to benzene contamination. 

Even though these sunscreen products have been recalled, it is still important for individuals to use sun protection on a regular basis. Ultraviolet radiation from sunlight is a proven human carcinogen, and the routine use of sunscreen has been proven to protect against certain types of skin cancers. As it is currently unknown whether intermittent exposures to benzene-containing sunscreen are associated with harmful health effects, individuals should avoid sunscreens that are known to contain benzene. The potential health risks of benzene-contaminated sunscreen must be balanced against the known risks of sun exposure, and because of this the complete avoidance of sunscreen products is not recommended.

For questions about potential poisoning from sunscreen, use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool or call 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free for the public, and available 24 hours a day.

Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD
Medical Toxicology Physician

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

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Prevention Tips

  • If you purchased sunscreen involved in the 2021 Johnson & Johnson recall, stop using the sunscreen and discard it. Please call the JJCI Consumer Care Center at 1-800-458-1673 with any recall-related questions.
  • Since benzene is present in air that we breathe every day, it is likely impossible to eliminate all sources of benzene exposure.
  • For questions about potential poisoning from sunscreen, get help online at www.poison.org or call 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free for the public, and available 24 hours a day.
 

This Really Happened

In July 2021, Johnson & Johnson issued a voluntary recall of five aerosol sunscreen products due to the presence of benzene. The recalled products are: Neutrogena® Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen; Neutrogena® Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen; Neutrogena® Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen; Neutrogena® Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen; and Aveeno® Protect and Refresh aerosol sunscreen. Benzene was not a known ingredient in any of the sunscreens that were recalled, and the levels of benzene detected in the affected sunscreens were not expected to cause dangerous health effects.

For More Information

ATSDR. Toxicological profile for benzene. Accessed July 15, 2021.

References

Duarte-Davidson R, Courage C, Rushton L, Levy L. Benzene in the environment: an assessment of the potential risks to the health of the population. Occup Environ Med. 2001 Jan;58(1):2-13. 

Falzone L, Marconi A, Loreto C, Franco S, Spandidos DA, Libra M. Occupational exposure to carcinogens: Benzene, pesticides and fibers (Review). Mol Med Rep. 2016 Nov;14(5):4467-4474.

Green A, Williams G, Neale R, Hart V, Leslie D, Parsons P, Marks GC, Gaffney P, Battistutta D, Frost C, Lang C, Russell A. Daily sunscreen application and betacarotene supplementation in prevention of basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinomas of the skin: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 1999 Aug 28;354(9180):723-9.  

Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. issues voluntary recall of specific Neutrogena® and Aveeno® aerosol sunscreen products due to the presence of benzene. Accessed July 15, 2021.

Kim S, Hong SH, Bong CK, Cho MH. Characterization of air freshener emission: the potential health effects. J Toxicol Sci. 2015;40(5):535-50. 

Smith MT. Advances in understanding benzene health effects and susceptibility. Annu Rev Public Health. 2010;31:133-48 2 p following 148. 

Valisure. Valisure detects benzene in sunscreen. Accessed July 15, 2021.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • If you purchased sunscreen involved in the 2021 Johnson & Johnson recall, stop using the sunscreen and discard it. Please call the JJCI Consumer Care Center at 1-800-458-1673 with any recall-related questions.
  • Since benzene is present in air that we breathe every day, it is likely impossible to eliminate all sources of benzene exposure.
  • For questions about potential poisoning from sunscreen, get help online at www.poison.org or call 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free for the public, and available 24 hours a day.
 

This Really Happened

In July 2021, Johnson & Johnson issued a voluntary recall of five aerosol sunscreen products due to the presence of benzene. The recalled products are: Neutrogena® Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen; Neutrogena® Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen; Neutrogena® Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen; Neutrogena® Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen; and Aveeno® Protect and Refresh aerosol sunscreen. Benzene was not a known ingredient in any of the sunscreens that were recalled, and the levels of benzene detected in the affected sunscreens were not expected to cause dangerous health effects.