Benzene, a Known Carcinogen, Has Been Found in Some Spray Sunscreens, Deodorants, and Other Products

Several products have been recalled because of the cancer risk. Here's what you need to know.

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Aerosol can and spray Photo: Getty Images

Last spring, Valisure, a small Connecticut lab, announced that it had found benzene, a known carcinogen, in Neutrogena spray sunscreens. The findings prompted Johnson & Johnson, which makes the sunscreen, to recall affected products. And the Food and Drug Administration told manufacturers of other aerosol personal care products to test for the chemical, too.

Many found it. To date, at least 15 brands have been affected, with more than 25 million products recalled because of contamination with the chemical. That includes other aerosol sunscreens, such as products from Aveeno and Coppertone, deodorants from Old Spice and Secret, and conditioners and shampoos from Aussie and Pantene.

More on Sunscreens

The findings also prompted Consumer Reports to look for benzene in every aerosol product in our sunscreen ratings as well as several top-rated insect repellents. We also tested current versions of some sunscreen products that had been previously recalled, including from Johnson & Johnson, as well as one from Coppertone. 

All the products CR tested came back negative for the carcinogen. But other products continue to be recalled for benzene. Most recently, two types of Suave aerosol antiperspirants, from the company Unilever, were recalled in March after they too were found to contain benzene. 

What’s going on, and how concerned should you be? Here’s what you need to know and how to stay safe. 

Long-Term Risks of Benzene

Since Valisure found benzene in sunscreens, the FDA has been trying to figure out why the chemical is showing up in so many products. So far, the agency has no clear answers, because benzene is not an ingredient in the products. 

“This contamination may be related to inactive ingredients such as carbomers (thickening agents), isobutane (a spray propellant), or other drug components made from hydrocarbons,” the FDA said in December.

What is clear is that while the amounts of benzene found in the products aren’t high enough to pose immediate health threats, they do raise safety concerns, especially if people are exposed to them for long periods or to benzene from other sources. 

The FDA says benzene levels in consumer products should be less than 2 parts per million (ppm). Frequent exposure to amounts above that could increase the risk of leukemia. 

Some of the recalled products had benzene levels well above that amount. For example, the Aveeno and Neutrogena sunscreens had benzene levels ranging from 11.2 to 23.6 ppm, five to 12 times the level advised by the FDA. 

Even at those levels, benzene is unlikely to cause immediate, serious health problems, says David Eastmond, a toxicologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, who has extensively studied benzene. 

But he and other health experts worry about the risk posed by repeated exposure, especially because people are also exposed to benzene from other sources, notably cigarette smoke and fumes at the gas pump. And it is the combined exposure from multiple sources that poses the biggest health risks, he says. He underscores the importance of avoiding it when you can.

What You Should Do

Concerns about benzene should not be a reason to avoid sunscreen. The products are essential to protecting you against skin cancer and other skin damage. Instead, use CR’s ratings to find an effective one. And be reassured that benzene was not detected in any of the aerosols we tested—including Trader Joe’s Spray SPF 50+, which has the highest score in our tests. Or choose a highly rated sunscreen lotion or cream because benzene has not been linked to those kinds of products. 

To see if you have a recalled spray sunscreen or other aerosol personal care product in your home, check the list of products listed below, then click on any product you are interested in for recall details.

Recalled Aerosol Sunscreens

Aveeno, Coppertone, Neutrogena

Recalled Aerosol Deodorants

Brut, Odor-Eaters, Old Spice, Secret, Suave, Sure 

Recalled Aerosol (Dry) Conditioners and Shampoos

Aussie, Herbal Essences, Old Spice, Pantene, Waterless

Recalled Aerosol Athlete’s Foot Treatments

Lotrimin AF, Tinactin

Best Spray Sunscreens From CR's Tests

If you prefer a spray sunscreen, choosing a high-performing one is the first step in protecting your skin from the sun. But getting good coverage from spray sunscreens can be a little tricky. The spray can disperse, so more of it may end up in the air or on your skin.

Also make sure you don’t inhale the spray, because the ingredients may irritate or even harm your lungs. To avoid both problems, spray sunscreen onto the palm of your hand and then rub it in. Next best is to hold the nozzle just an inch from your skin, spray until you can see a film on your skin, and then rub it in. 

Here are some top-scoring sprays from CR’s tests, listed in alphabetical order.