hand with bottle of sunscreen

Popular Sunscreens Are Recalled for Containing a Cancer-causing Ingredient

I dread parts of summer; the sticky heat, pesky mosquitos and the daily tedious task of slathering lotion on myself and squirmy kids every single day. All summer long. 

I know we use sunscreen for protection. I know it’s best for our health, but it’s annoying. So why do companies have to make it that much harder?

The uber popular “reef-safe” sunscreen, Sun Bum Baby Bum Mineral SPF 50+ and Nivea Protect & Moisturizer SPF 30 lotion, were just recalled for having benzene in their products. Benzene is a chemical and a carcinogen that can cause leukemia (blood cancer), anemia, and other issues. Benzene is not an ingredient in sunscreen, but it is being used during the manufacturing process.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says benzene causes cells not to work properly. “It can cause bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia. Also, it can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies and causing the loss of white blood cells.”

Sounds pretty serious, right? The good news is one application of sunscreen with benzene wouldn’t do this damage. But, long-term exposure to benzene could. Think about how many times we put on sunscreen in the summer. Or think about the fact that we are (technically) supposed to be wearing sunscreen year round? That’s a lot of sunscreen. 

Sadly, these aren’t the first sunscreens to be recalled. 

Last year Coppertone recalled some sunscreens and Johnson & Johnson recalled their Neutrogena and Aveeno aerosol spray sunscreens after a report showed their products had benzene. The independent pharmaceutical testing company, Valisure, who found the benzene also found it in 78 other lots of sunscreens (which you can view the list here).

“There is not a safe level of benzene that can exist in sunscreen products,” said Dr. Christopher Bunick, an associate professor of dermatology at Yale University, in a press release. “Even benzene at 0.1 ppm in a sunscreen could expose people to excessively high nanogram amounts of benzene.”

What types of sunscreens are approved as “safe”?

There are two types of sunscreens: chemical and mineral (or physical).

Chemical sunscreens work by letting UV rays be absorbed into the top layer of your skin, then release the rays back out into the air as heat. Chemical sunscreens use 10+ ingredients to create this chemical reaction. 

Mineral sunscreens work by acting as a physical barrier between you and the sun’s rays. (Think of this lotion for us like what mud is for rhinos or pigs; a natural sunblock. Gross, but accurate.) Mineral sunscreens work because they use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Both chemical and mineral sunscreens help block UVA and UVB rays from our skin, but some chemical sunscreens shouldn’t be used if you’re going swimming in the ocean as they can damage the coral reef. And, the Environmental Work Group (EWG) doesn’t recommend chemical sunscreens because some of the ingredients can disrupt hormones and cause allergic skin reactions.

You can find affordable mineral-based sunscreens on Amazon, in Target or Walmart near you or online. 

For parents: ThinkSport Sunscreen, Attitude Face Stick, Countersun, Supergoop’s Unseen Sunscreen. 

For kids or parents: Thinkbaby Sunscreen Stick, Badger Kids Clear Zinc Sunscreen Cream, Babo Botanicals Zinc Sunscreen, Earth Mama Baby Mineral Sunscreen.

At the end of the day, some sunscreen is better than no sunscreen. But, if you have the choice, try to make it mineral-based.

“I tell my patients that mineral sunscreens are like a healthy, home-cooked meal, [while] chemical sunscreens are like the fast food of sunscreens,” Dr. Lauren Ploch, a board-certified dermatologist, told Everyday Health.

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