Johnson & Johnson has recalled all lots of five aerosol spray Aveeno and Neutrogena sunscreens after an independent lab found small traces of benzene, a flammable chemical found in cigarette smoke, gasoline, and paint thinner. The lab, Valisure, asked the FDA to recall 78 sun protection products, from a variety of brands, in May. But Neutrogena’s spray sunscreens ranked highest in benzene content, some three times the FDA-recommended maximum level of benzene. Some CVS Health, Good Sense, and Banana Boat products are also up there, along with even a supposedly “all natural” mineral sunscreen from Raw Elements.
Johnson & Johnson claims that habitual use of these sunscreens wouldn’t be enough to damage your health and that the recall is “out of an abundance of caution.” They also note that they don’t use benzene as an ingredient, and the contamination is accidental. If you purchased on of these products (full list here), you can request a refund.
Exposure to higher levels of benzene have been linked to leukemia, anemia, excessive bleeding, a weakened immune system, and possible damage to women’s reproductive health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finds that lifetime exposure to benzene in air and water can contribute to one new cancer case per 100,000 cases. At a very high level, it can cause a quick death.
Thankfully, the levels found in sunscreens were small, so no need to freak out—unfortunately, most people are exposed to benzene every day through car exhaust and cigarette smoke, among other avenues, as HHS explains. You breathe it in when you fill the gas tank, so much so that the Wisconsin Department of Health advises us to hold our breath. If you live near a highway, you’re exposed to benzene. An “average smoker” (32 cigs a day!! per HHS) inhales about 10 times the average level of benzene. Even just sitting near a smoker in a movie theater can expose you to benzene.
Despite this disappointing news, it remains true that sunscreen is a great way to prevent cancer; the Sun, life-giving and wonderful though it is, is a far more frequent cause of cancer than benzene. The Skin Cancer Foundation finds that one in five Americans develops skin cancer, a rate expected to rise as more intense UV rays hit the planet’s surface. Dermatologists tend to recommend cream or lotion sunscreens over sprays and powders, and hats, long sleeves, and shade are all great ways to stay protected.
Don’t be alarmed. Let’s focus on that sweet refund, which you can obtain, if you are diligent (and therefore probably more likely to use sunscreen), by calling Johnson & Johnson 1-800-458-1673. Use this money to purchase more sunscreen—preferably not the aerosol spray kind.