False claims about cancer causing chemical in sunscreen

26 May 2023
What was claimed

Most generic sunscreens on the market contain benzenes which are a cancer-causing agent.

Our verdict

Benzene is cancer-causing. It is not used as an ingredient in sunscreens. While contamination is an ongoing issue, the evidence doesn’t show that most products contain it. One 2021 study found just over a quarter of the sunscreens they tested were contaminated, but most had very small amounts of benzene and did not contain enough to meet the FDA’s recall threshold.

An Instagram video, by a men’s lifestyle coach with almost 180,000 followers, makes a number of claims about skin health, generally discouraging the use of sunscreen.

The main claim in the post, that most sunscreen products contain the cancer-causing chemical benzene, is misleading.

Bad information about health can cause direct harm, such as encouraging risky behaviour around sun exposure. It can also undermine medical experts and public health messaging and damages understanding of important health issues. We have written before about false claims by people with large social media followings claiming to offer legitimate health advice.

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Benefits of sunscreen

Cancer Research UK explains that UV rays from the sun cause DNA damage to skin cells that can increase the risk of skin cancer, particularly if a person gets sunburn.

The NHS says that wearing sunscreen is an effective way of reducing UV damage and therefore reducing this risk. 

It also advises other methods such as seeking shade and avoiding the sun between 11am and 3pm for most of the year. The Instagram video in question does correctly repeat similar advice.

The British Skin Foundation explains: “Years of research has confirmed that both [UVA and UVB] rays can cause melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. Sunscreen successfully prevents most of these rays from reaching our skin and thus reducing our risk of skin cancer.”

Benzene in sunscreen

The man in the video states that “Most generic sunscreens on the market, most of them, contain benzenes which are a cancer-causing agent” and the caption refers to “toxic sunscreens loaded in benzenes”.

Benzene isn’t generally an ingredient in sunscreen. It is a known cancer-causing agent. Its use in consumer products is not permitted in the UK. According to the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), products found to contain it are usually contaminated

The claim may be referring to recalls of sunscreens from major brands that have been found to contain benzene. Other products like hand sanitiser, dry shampoo and other cosmetics have also been recalled in the US in recent years due to benzene contamination.

In 2021, a US laboratory company analysed 294 batches of sunscreen and after-sun care products from 69 brands.

166 of the sunscreens tested did not have detectable levels of benzene.

78 product batches had detectable levels of benzene, and most were sunscreens. Around half of these sunscreens contained detectable levels of benzene that were under 0.1ppm (parts per million). About a third contained benzene in concentrations between 0.1 ppm  and 2.0 ppm, and the remainder contained 2 ppm or more. 

Overall, a little over a quarter of sunscreens tested contained some level of benzene.

The FDA says that products with concentrations above 2 ppm should not be released, and those found to contain this much should be considered for voluntary recall. Less than 5% of the sunscreens tested met this threshold.

Most of the data about the risk of benzene exposure comes from people coming into contact with it at work. It has been linked to blood cancers specifically and potentially other types.

The UK Health Protection Agency (which has since been merged into other government bodies) said in 2007 that “Exposures to 1 ppm benzene for 40 working years has been considered not to be associated with any increase in leukaemia or any other [blood] abnormality” though it may be assumed that any exposure will increase cancer risk to some extent, albeit likely very small at small exposures.

The evidence does not support the claim that benzene is in most generic sunscreens, nor that this is causing a significant amount of skin cancer, and the evidence we do have shows that most contamination is at a very low level.

Full Fact contacted the account for comment, but had received no response at the time of writing.

The information included in this article contains the latest evidence and official guidance available at the time it was written. This is not a substitute for medical advice. If you require specific medical advice please consult your GP.

Featured image courtesy of National Cancer Institute

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