FDA asked to recall sunscreens due to cancer causing chemical

Summer is fast approaching, which means stocking up on sunscreen to protect ourselves and our family from sunburn, skin cancer and early skin aging. In fact, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Did you know that sunscreens are considered drugs that are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?

Valisure, a laboratory in Connecticut whose mission it is to independently check the chemical composition of medications before they reach consumers, petitioned the FDA on May 24th 2021 to request recalls on specific batches of sunscreen products containing high levels of benzene.

What is Benzene?

Benzene is a colorless chemical derived from crude oil. The World Health Organization, The Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, have all classified benzene as a “class 1 compound” carcinogenic to humans.

Benzene causes harmful effects on the bone marrow leading to the development of leukemia.

Chemicals with a similar structure to benzene or chemicals that form benzene from degradation (oxybenzone, avobenzone, dioxybenzone, aminobenzoic acid, sulisobenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, homosalate, and octocylene) have been approved by the FDA as sunscreen agents because they absorb UVA and UVB rays, preventing them from reaching the skin. Due to their unacceptable toxicity, benzene levels are currently restricted to 2 parts per million (ppm).

What did Valisure find ?

Valisure tested multiple sunscreen products and found that they contain levels of benzene that “significantly surpass the 2 ppm conditional FDA restriction”. The highest level of benzene was detected at 6.26 ppm! Their findings are extremely troubling as these products are used widely by adults and children in large volumes. For example, if sunscreen is applied at 2mg/cm2 to 75% of body surface area (not covered by swim wear) this equates to 28.5 grams of sunscreen per application. Then multiply this by how many times per day you re-apply sunscreen!

In addition to sunscreens, Valisure found multiple after-sun skin products with benzene levels above 2 ppm. These are products that are marketed for use after sun exposure and are classified as cosmetics, because they do not claim to protect against skin cancer. It is estimated by the FDA that over 11,000 sunscreen products are on the market in the United States. This does not include after-sun products, as they do not need to be registered with the FDA.

As well as requesting a recall of identified batches of sunscreen products, Valisure is also requesting the FDA:

  • conduct investigations into the manufacturing processes of these products,
  • develop guidance documents for the analysis of benzene in sunscreen products,
  • review and update current FDA guidance for acceptable concentrations of benzene or better yet, to clarify that there is no acceptable level of benzene,
  • develop guidance documents defining how many total applications of sunscreen is considered safe,
  • provide information to the public that safe sunscreen alternatives are available.

While Valisure attempted to test sunscreen products from a variety of retailers and in a variety of formulations, they admit that they were unable to test every brand and formulation. They also discovered:

“significant variability in benzene levels from batch to batch, even within a single brand, underscoring the significance of batch-level chemical analysis and the necessity of overall increased quality surveillance of these pharmaceutical and consumer products”


Check if the sunscreen you have at home contains high levels of benzene

To find out which products exceeded the 2 ppm of benzene, as there are unfortunately too many to list here, please click on this link to read the whole article and petition:


To find out which products did not contain detectable levels of benzene, click here:


How to stay safe in the sun

Despite these findings, sunscreen continues to be one of the best ways to reduce your risk of skin cancer. Look for products with mineral ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which block and scatter the sun’s rays before they reach your skin. Keep in mind that while important, sunscreen alone is not enough. Remember to wear protective clothing including a broad-rimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses. Try to seek the shade between 10 am and 4 pm and avoid getting sunburn!

Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide

The Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide is great! It rates sunscreens by efficacy and the relative level of concern posed by exposure to their ingredients. It is definitely worth a read!