Johnson & Johnson detects cancer-causing benzene in some spray sunscreens

WASHINGTON – On Wednesday, Johnson & Johnson announced it is voluntarily recalling 14 sunscreen products from five different product lines after finding benzene, a known carcinogen, in some popular sunscreen sprays.

J&J recommends consumers stop using and discard its Aveeno and Neutrogena aerosolized sunscreens. The company also notified distributors and retailers to stop selling the sprays and is arranging for the return of the products.

Benzene, a widely used industrial chemical, is not used as an ingredient in the sunscreen formulations, so it is not listed on product labels. But it may have contaminated the products during the manufacturing process.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention links long-term exposure to benzene to leukemia and other blood cancers.

In May, Valisure, an independent pharmacy and laboratory, tested sunscreen sprays and lotions and detected high levels of benzene in 78 of nearly 300 popular sunscreens and after-sun products. The lab petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to recall these contaminated batches.

Multiple studies in the past few months have documented the widespread occurrence of concerning contaminants in personal care products, including benzene in sunscreens and hand sanitizers and PFAS in nearly half of tested cosmetics.

“The FDA should set and enforce standards for chemical contaminants in everyday products like sunscreen so that consumers don’t need to rely on independent testing from labs like Valisure,” said EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews, Ph.D.

Although sunscreen sprays may seem appealing for using on children, who are constantly on the move, they may not coat the skin enough to ensure proper protection.

Want to take EWG’s sunscreen tips wherever you go?

“For 15 years, EWG has warned consumers about the health hazards linked to harmful ingredients that may be used in sunscreens,” said Carla Burns, EWG’s senior director of cosmetic science. “In that time, we’ve seen a substantial rise in sunscreen sprays. More than a quarter of the sunscreens reviewed in the 2021 sunscreens guide are sprays.”

In 2019, the FDA recommended more safety tests of all spray and powder sunscreen products to ensure they cannot be inhaled deep into the lungs, where they could do irreversible damage. In pilot tests, the agency found that three in 14 sprays would not meet its proposed standard but did not say which products to avoid.

EWG recommends that consumers avoid all spray and powder sunscreen products.

“We expect the FDA to finalize its new sunscreens rules this fall,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president of government affairs. “We hope the agency sets deadlines for companies to test their sunscreens for contaminants like benzene."

Here are some more tips to remember when selecting a sunscreen:

  • Choose a lotion instead of a spray – sunscreen sprays pose inhalation risks and may provide inadequate protection.
  • If you must use a pump or spray, apply it to your hands first and then wipe it on your skin.
  • Nine of the 14 recalled products advertise an SPF over 50, which EWG recommends avoiding because of its diminishing value.

Shoppers can download EWG’s Healthy Living App to get ratings and safety information on sunscreens and other personal care products. EWG’s sunscreen label decoder can also help consumers looking for safer sunscreens.

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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