Johnson & Johnson announced a voluntary sunscreen recall this week, which affects certain Neutrogena and Aveeno spray sunscreens. The recall comes after external and internal testing showed small amounts of benzene, a chemical that can cause cancer, in the products.
The sunscreen recall only affects six products, which are all spray sunscreens, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recall notice says. Those products are:
- Neutrogena Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen
- Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen
- Neutrogena Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen
- Aveeno Protect Refresh aerosol sunscreen
The company says it’s not sure how benzene, a known human carcinogen, ended up in its sunscreens. Regardless, it’s not a normal sunscreen or cosmetics ingredient, and it’s definitely not supposed to be there. However, based on modeling from an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) framework, “Daily exposure to benzene in these aerosol sunscreen products at the levels detected in our testing would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences,” the notice says. “Out of an abundance of caution, we are recalling all lots of these specific aerosol sunscreen products.”
This recall is a direct result of the company’s own internal testing. But the issue of benzene in sunscreens first popped up in late May when Valisure, an independent online pharmacy and testing company, released a report showing the presence of the chemical in 78 batches of products from major brands, including Neutrogena, Banana Boat, CVS Health, Sun Bum, Walgreens, and more. So far only Neutrogena and Aveeno have recalled their products.
Of course, finding out that a carcinogen has been hanging out in a product you put on your skin is worrying—especially so when that product is something you normally count on for protection. But the situation here is more complicated than it seems.
In products like this, benzene is not purposely added but rather a trace contaminant, meaning it’s an impurity in another ingredient, cosmetics chemist Michelle Wong, Ph.D., explains on her blog Lab Muffin.
The truth is that we are all probably getting exposed to small amounts of benzene on a daily basis through inhaling gasoline, car exhaust, or cigarette smoke, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains. It’s also used in the manufacturing processes for plastics, nylon, and rubber. There’s not as much research about how much benzene is absorbed through the skin, Dr. Wong says. But, to date, exposure to benzene in personal care products hasn’t been linked to actual cancer cases.
Also, know that the presence of benzene in these sunscreens doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not the product is chemical- or mineral-based. Common chemical sunscreen ingredients like avobenzone and oxybenzone are not secretly benzene even though they may sound similar, cosmetics chemist Stephen Alain Ko, explained on Instagram.
So, yes, small exposures over a lifetime can add up to increase your risk for cancer and it’s worth finding ways to reduce your exposure to the chemical. But these findings and the recall should not be a cause for panic. Still, if you have one of the recalled sunscreens, the recall notice says you should stop using it and discard it. But please don’t abandon sunscreen altogether.