Why you shouldn’t panic about Neutrogena’s sunscreen recall

You may have read the news by now about how a certain aerosol sunscreen is being recalled due to “cancer-causing” chemicals. But the issue is a lot more complicated.

It’s another day of controversy in the skincare world. Yesterday, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) issued a recall for Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray SPF 50+ due to “possible health risks linked to benzene.”

“All batches with an expiry date of 30th August 2023 or earlier should not be used,” the statement read.

Time to flip the f—k out, right? We should stop using sunscreen?? WE’RE ALL GONNA GET CANCER AND DIE!? Woah, woah, take a deep breath.

First of all, know that the TGA has limits on these kinds of chemicals—that, for the record, is not used as an ingredient in sunscreen but can be used in the manufacturing process. In Australia and according to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, that limit is 2 parts per million (ppm).

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Neutrogena’s parent company Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. product testing detected benzene at concentrations of less than 3 ppm in two of the 17 batches supplied in Australia.

“Exposure to benzene in this sunscreen product, at the levels detected, would not be expected to cause serious adverse health effects,” but J&J has issued a recall here in Australia and, in the US, “out of an abundance of caution”.

How did this start?

Back in March 2021, Valisure, an independent US-based pharmaceutical testing lab, examined samples from 260 liquid hand sanitizer products on the American market and found 44 batches were contaminated with benzene, with the highest level detected over eight times the safety limit outlined by the FDA.

After these findings, they decided to turn their attention to sunscreens and after-sun care products.

They tested 294 batches from 69 different brands, which is by no means an extensive study as there are thousands of SPF products on the market.

Valisure found 78 of those 294 were contaminated with benzene at levels over which the FDA deems safe. Most of them were aerosol sunscreens. Valisure then asked for a recall on these products and asked for stricter limits for what’s in place.

What is benzene?

Benzene is a colourless to light yellow liquid (at room temperature) that is highly flammable. You’re exposed to benzene every day, through car exhaust, industrial emissions, cigarette smoke, at petrol stations, and any time you burn anything. Yes, that bougie scented candle exposes you to benzene.

The toxicity of high levels of benzene is well-documented. According to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s National Pollutant Inventory: “Exposure can result in symptoms such as skin and eye irritations, drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, and vomiting. Benzene is carcinogenic [cancer-causing] and long-term exposure at various levels can affect normal blood production and can be harmful to the immune system. It can cause Leukaemia (cancer of the tissues that form white blood cells) and has also been linked with birth defects in animals and humans.”

That sounds scary, but according to Dr. Shereene Idris, a New York-based cosmetic dermatologist, says there’s no reason to panic.

“I live in the heart of New York City… and if you live in a city, chances are you’re exposed to benzene at high levels on a daily basis,” she said in a YouTube video.

“It is also detected in foods that we eat, like soft cheeses, dairy, cranberry juice. It can range from 1-190 micrograms per kilogram in the various foods that we eat. A few years ago, the FDA found that soft drinks had a lot of benzene in them and had to go jump in to regulate it, and maybe this will happen with the sunscreen industry.”

The most important thing to note here is that “this is not a sunscreen issue,” she says.

Michelle Wong, aka Lab Muffin, a Sydney-based skinfluencer with a PhD in chemistry, said in a YouTube video: “No one is purposefully adding benzene to products, benzene doesn’t really have a purpose in cosmetics,” she said, adding that benzene is a trace contaminant that showed up in inconsistent levels across different batches from the same brand.

The risk of serious complications of benzene is highly dependent on how it gets into your body, too, and it can have an impact of how much is absorbed.

“Benzene is a very volatile compound that 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,” professional debunker and chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz at McGill University in Montreal, told the Washington Post.

“You would probably find some [benzene] because you would probably find it in everyone’s blood, whether or not they have used the contaminated sunscreen or not.”

It’s not to say that benzene isn’t harmful at all; we should all be looking at ways to reduce our exposure to it, but the product recall is no reason to panic irrationally. It certainly doesn’t mean you should stop wearing sunscreen, either.

“Benzene in personal care products has never been linked to cancer but UV exposure has,” said Wong, who said she would personally stop using the listed products in the recall but would hold onto them if we got any more information.

Also, it’s important to note, there are some products used in sunscreen that might sound they’re derived from benzene—avobenzone and oxybenzone, for example—but are in no way related.