Concerns about sunscreen safety, many entirely unfounded, continue to bubble up. The latest are stemming from a study by Valisure, an independent, for-profit pharmacy and research testing lab, that found benzene, a carcinogen, in 78 of nearly 300 sunscreen samples tested. Troubling? For sure. But let's make one thing clear upfront: Benzene is not an ingredient in sunscreen and never has been. This is an issue of manufacturing contamination, not sunscreen formulations that pose health risks. (Earlier this year, the same lab that found benzene in many sunscreens found it in many hand sanitizers too. Over the last few decades, excessive levels of benzene have been found in soft drinks and other beverages.) So now let's back up and break down what this news means for us — and our daily (right? right.) sunscreen routines.
"We saw the first signals of there being an issue [with sunscreens] in late 2020," says David Light, founder and CEO of Valisure, noting that they analyzed 294 unique batches of sunscreen and after-sun care products from 69 different companies. "We followed up with a broad market sweep over the last few months to test products that we were able to source from major retailers."
Light adds that "while 78 products contained detectable levels of benzene," there were also more than 200 batches of sunscreen that did not. And for total consumer transparency, they published a complete list of benzene-positive sunscreens and after-sun products — and their batch numbers — as well as a list of sun products that tested negative for benzene.
How bad is it?
As happens with any news that seems to call sunscreen's safety into question, the internet went into a bit of a spiral. And this study does raise concerning issues, says Mathew Avram, president of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS), director at the Mass General Dermatology Laser & Cosmetic Center and associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. Benzene "is not an ingredient in sunscreens and never has been," he explains. In other words: Benzene is not supposed to be anywhere near the sunscreen manufacturing process.
If you're not familiar with benzene, you're not alone. It's a chemical naturally found in volcanoes and forest fires, and "a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke," according to the CDC. As the CDC explains, it's a chemical most people are likely exposed to every day, as the air we breathe contains low levels of it “from tobacco smoke, gas stations, motor vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions.” It's also used to make chemicals found in human-made products like plastics, dyes, and detergents, and is found in glue and paint.
"I'm not worried about trace amounts of benzene," says New York City-based dermatologist and assistant clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine, Macrene Alexiades, who also sits on the editorial board of the Dermatologic Surgery Journal. "What I am worried about is when you’re talking benzene levels of six to nearly seven percent. That is very worrisome and very carcinogenic," she says, particularly because benzene is a very volatile solvent, "which means these types of organic compounds penetrate your cell membrane very quickly and easily, so if you have it on the skin surface, it 100 percent is cutting right through your skin into your bloodstream."
Chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal, told the Washington Post earlier this month that he estimates applying one application of a sunscreen with the highest level of benzene found in the Valisure study would be about the equivalent to half of the amount of benzene you’d get from breathing city air for a day. He also noted that, due to its volatility, benzene evaporates quickly, "so when you put it on your skin, I suspect most of it will evaporate before it has a chance of being absorbed."
Be wary of contamination theories.
Each of the dermatologists and scientists that Allure spoke to for this story believed that all signs from the study point to an accidental manufacturing contamination, not some nefarious, cost-cutting tactic with carcinogens.
Reassuring? Not really, according to Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and CEO of BeautyStat, because it begs the question (which will, of course, spur even more questions): How did it get there? "The short answer is: we really can't be sure, and you can't make blanket rules or assumptions as to how this happened, other than looking at facts," says Avram.
“We all agree that it shouldn't be there. And the question is: If that's the case, how did it get there?”
At this point, we have more questions than answers, and contamination theories rather than facts. What we do know is that, even within the same brand, some sunscreens were found to contain benzene while others were not. That's why the batch numbers noted in the study are key: It means that the same sunscreen from a different batch may not contain benzene, and can help consumers determine whether or not the sunscreens they own were included in the Valisure findings.
What's the FDA saying?
In the March discovery of benzene in some hand sanitizers by Valisure, the FDA provided a statement to Bloomberg News that said, “The agency reminds manufacturers, distributors, repackagers and importers they are responsible for the quality of their products and urges manufacturers to test their ingredients to ensure they meet specifications and are free from harmful contamination.” In that emailed statement, spokesman Jeremy Kahn added that retailers should remove products if they have concerns with quality.
Valisure's petition to the FDA for the recall of the contaminated suncare products has gone unanswered by the agency, which is not that surprising since their general policy is to not comment on pending petitions. When Allure reached out we received the following statement: "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."
The FDA also highlights in their statement that consumer safety is a team effort: "The agency reminds manufacturers, distributors, repackagers, and importers they are responsible for the quality of their products and urges manufacturers to test their ingredients to ensure they meet specifications and are free from harmful contamination."
In terms of next steps, the FDA states that their response to the petition will be posted "in the designated agency docket for the petition."
Where do we go from here?
"The safety of our topical products, whether it's sunscreens or another category, is a sacrosanct principle for public health and safety, and the fact that there were levels of a well-known carcinogen found in a limited but significant number of sunscreens is something we need to be concerned about and monitor," says Avram, urging consumers to learn and shop from the list of benzene-safe batches.
The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), an organization representing more than 90 percent of companies in the U.S. beauty industry, released a statement in support of the American consumer and acknowledging the Valisure report.
"The PCPC and its member companies are firmly committed to ensuring consumers have access to cosmetics and personal care products with ingredients that have been thoroughly tested for safety and follow the requirements of the law," begins the statement. "There is nothing more important than safety. If our consumers can't believe in a product or rely on it to do what it says, then nothing else matters."
On an individual level, there are precautions you can take. If you have any sunscreen in your home (and we hope you do!), cross-check the batch number on the sunscreens and after-sun products you own with Valisure’s list of contaminated suncare products for peace of mind. Although the location can vary, most often, you can find the 7-figure batch number on the bottom of spray cans and sticks, as well as on the backs of squeeze bottles, usually on the side.
"With the lot number, I can go and check the lot numbers or batch numbers to see whether or not I have a contaminated product or not," says Robinson, who notes that this narrowing down is helpful for brands, too. "We all agree that it shouldn't be there. And the question is: If that's the case, how did it get there? Was it a by-product?"
But whatever you do, urges Avram, absolutely do not stop wearing sunscreen. "That would be a complete misread of this report," he says, adding that the study found there were hundreds of sunscreens that tested negative for benzene. "The only advice I would give is for people to become familiar with that list of sunscreens and then accordingly, determine which specific products on that list didn’t contain benzene, and use those."
The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA) echoed Avram's sentiments about the importance of sunscreen, while also reminding us that sunscreen is just one piece of the sun-protection puzzle, along with physical barriers, like shade and sun-protective clothing. Their statement from president Kenneth J. Tomecki, also calls on the FDA to investigate, stating that the AADA "looks forward to the FDA's review of this report" and subsequently, "how it should be addressed."
Source: Read Full Article