There are many important considerations when choosing a sunscreen beyond choosing a product with broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection and the right SPF factor.
Scientists have discovered at least two different compounds in sunscreens that are carcinogens — benzene and benzophenone. Neither of these compounds appear on product labels but may be introduced during product manufacture and/or created by chemical reactions with the sunscreen itself, with more produced over the life of the product!
As discussed below, certain ingredients in sunscreens appear to make a product more likely to contain benzene and/or benzophenone. We have provided several tables showing more than two hundred examples of products that, either through testing or a review of ingredients, may pose some risk or appear to be safer than others.
Benzene Contamination in Sunscreens
Benzene, which has been linked to blood cancers, was reported in 2021 in a large number of sunscreens and after-sun products that were independently tested. The products included sprays, gels, lotions, and creams. Benzene was found in 43 out of 224 sunscreens and in 8 of 48 after-sun products. The highest average concentrations of benzene (2 ppm to 6 ppm) were found in four sprays. The next highest average concentrations of benzene (0.1 to 1 ppm) were in twelve products that were primarily sprays but included four lotions. After-sun products with the highest concentrations of benzene consisted of four gels and one spray.
In the months after benzene was reported in sunscreens, recalls were undertaken by Coppertone and by Johnson & Johnson (of certain Neutrogena sunscreens and one Aveeno sunscreen).
FDA guidance suggests that no level of benzene is safe, and it is not permitted in these or other products. A study by Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Hazards has shown that the application of sunscreen specifically increases the absorption rate of benzene through the skin. Benzene is known to cause cancer in humans according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization, and other regulatory agencies. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines benzene as a carcinogen and lists "inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, skin and/or eye contact" as exposure routes.
It is important to note that not all sunscreen products contain benzene and that uncontaminated products are available, should continue to be used, and are important for protecting against potentially harmful solar radiation.
We don't know the exact source of the benzene, but, in the case of sprays, it may relate to the propellants (e.g., such as butane, isobutane, or propane) and not any of the active sunscreen ingredients. (Benzene has also been found in spray deodorants and antiperspirants). Consequently, products having the same ingredients can be different with regard to benzene contamination.
The table below shows, out of more than 200 sunscreens, which were found to be contaminated with benzene and which were not, as well as which have been recalled. (Note: Even if a product did not contain benzene, it may still contain ingredients that are potentially problematic. See our lists, further below, of sunscreens, facial moisturizers, and lip balms or glosses that are less likely to be problematic -- none of which has been reported to contain benzene).
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Benzophenone Contamination in Sunscreens
Experiments conducted by a research team in the U.S. and France, have shown that benzophenone seems to be formed by the degradation of a common sunscreen ingredient, octocrylene. As noted by this team of scientists, "Benzophenone is a mutagen, carcinogen, and endocrine disruptor. Its presence in food products or food packaging is banned in the United States. Under California Proposition 65, there is no safe harbor for benzophenone in any personal care products, including sunscreens, anti-aging creams, and moisturizers." (Downs, Chem Res Tox 2021)
Benzophenone in sunscreens may also help explain why some people have a photoallergic skin reaction to sunscreens containing octocrylene, as suggested by the testing of sunscreens by researchers in Belgium (Foubert, ACS 2020). In addition, benzophenone may also be an environmental hazard — it was originally patented as an herbicide.
In 16 sunscreens that listed octocrylene as the primary ingredient, concentrations of benzophenone ranged from 6 to 186 ppm. These levels more than doubled, on average, after subjecting the products to an accelerated stability experiment (storing them at 104° F for 6 weeks), with amounts ranging from 9.8 to 435 mg/kg, clearly showing that benzophenone was created in octocrylene products. They also showed that a sunscreen that did not list octocrylene had no benzophenone.
The table below summarizes of the findings from French and American researchers, showing the average amount benzophenone found in purchased samples. Keep in mind that this was based on a limited sampling. It is very possible that all products that list octocrylene as a main ingredient will contain benzophenone. It was estimated in 2019 that nearly 3,000 sun products in the U.S. list octocrylene as an ingredient.
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So which sunscreens are safe and effective?
As noted by the American Academy of Dermatology, octocrylene is among a dozen "chemical" sunscreen agents that the FDA has proposed be classified as not generally recognized as safe and effective. The FDA has asked manufacturers to provide more safety information about these compounds. Other common sunscreen compounds in this category are avobenzone, ensulizole, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, and oxybenzone. A clinical study in 2020 showed that each of these compounds is absorbed into the body after application in sunscreens, resulting in plasma concentrations that surpassed the FDA threshold for potentially waiving some of the additional safety studies (Matta, JAMA Network 2020).
The only two compounds that the FDA has proposed to be generally recognized as safe and effective as sunscreens are the "mineral" compounds titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They essentially work by "blocking" ultraviolet radiation, while the chemical sunscreen agents "absorb" radiation. Several studies in people and animals have shown that there is very little absorption of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide into the body when applied to the skin and no evidence of adverse effects (European Commission 2015; European Commission, 2014). These two mineral-based compounds are also considered more environmentally safe for swimming near coral reefs -- although not when formulated as "nano" particles — than chemicals such as avobenzone and oxybenzone.
Be aware that laboratory research suggests that mixing otherwise safe mineral-based sunscreen ingredients (e.g., zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) with sunscreen ingredients that are organic compounds (not to be confused with "organically grown" ingredients) can reduce the effectiveness of some of the organic compounds and potentially create toxic compounds when the mixture is exposed to the ultraviolet radiation of sunlight. This was seen in a laboratory experiment that showed that adding zinc oxide (micro- or nano-sized) to a sunscreen formula of organic compounds (avobenzone, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone) and exposed to a solar simulator (comparable to sunlight exposure) for two hours, caused the formula to lose 80% of its UV-A filter protection. Interestingly UV-B protection was not affected, nor was short-wave UV-A, but long-wave UV-A was nearly completely eliminated. As the lost UV-A protection had been provided mainly by avobenzone, it was concluded that this ingredient was most susceptible to degradation. The degraded mixture also exhibited higher levels of toxicity in a laboratory assay (Ginzburg, Photochem Photobio Sci 2021). The take home message: Avoid sunscreens that mix otherwise safe mineral-based ingredients (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) with organic chemical formulas, particularly those with avobenzone.
It should be noted that testing by Consumer Reports (2022) has suggested that sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are not as effective as products made with chemical ingredients, although some provide "adequate" protection. The reason for this is not clear, although Consumer Reports' SPF testing involves application of each sunscreen to individuals' backs who then soak in a tub of water. It is possible that this soaking is more likely to remove mineral sunscreens than chemical sunscreens, while chemical sunscreens may be more likely to remain on the skin or, possibly, absorbed into the skin. (This absorption, however, is a potential safety concern, as noted earlier.) Afterward, areas of the skin are exposed to different intensities of UV light and, a day later, the skin is examined for redness to determine SPF ratings. UVA protection is measured by the determining the amount UVA and UVB absorbed after passing UV light through plastic plates on which each sunscreen has been smeared.
The table below lists mineral-based sunscreens that we've identified that do not contain avobenzone, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, or oxybenzone. In addition, none of these products have been reported to contain the carcinogens benzene or benzophenone. They provide broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB radiation. The products vary in price and size, but can cost as little as $4.00 per ounce, or as much as $17.00 per ounce, as shown in the last column.
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Facial Moisturizers and Lip Balms and Glosses with Sunscreen
The tables below list facial moisturizers, as well as lip balms and glosses, with sunscreens. In the first table, products in the first group are potentially problematic as they contain octocrylene (which can form benzophenone) or sunscreen compounds not recognized as safe by the FDA (avobenzone, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, or oxybenzone). Products in the second group, and lip balms and glosses in the second table, contain only mineral sunscreen ingredients that have been recognized as safe and effective by the FDA.
Sign in as a CL member to view the table, which includes products from Aveeno, Badger, BareMinerals, Burt's Bees, CeraVe, Cetaphil, Colorscience, eos, Good Skin, Hello, jane iredale, Kiehl's, L'Oreal, Mineral Fusion, Neutrogena, and Olay Regenerist, Sun Bum, Thinksport, Vanicream, and Waxhead.