For years, chemical sunscreens have come under scrutiny due to safety concerns. We’ve known for a long time that its ingredients can enter our bloodstream (more on that in a second), and these fears were amplified when Banana Boat voluntarily recalled three batches of its Hair & Scalp Spray SPF 30 on Friday, July 29. February, after trace amounts of benzene, a known carcinogen that has been linked to leukemia at high levels of exposure, were found in the products.
While it sounds scary, it doesn’t necessarily mean chemical sunscreens aren’t safe. There’s a lot of (super scientific) stuff to unpack here, so let’s get to it.
How Chemical Sunscreens Got Their Questionable Reputation
Chemical sunscreens use sunscreens like avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, and oxybenzone to absorb ultraviolet rays and convert them into heat. A small 2019 study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on 24 participants found that as these ingredients sink into our skin, they also sink into our bloodstream at levels higher than the threshold the agency set in 2016. However, the FDA was quick to say “these results do not mean the ingredients are not safe.”
So why all the drama? Some of the controversy surrounding chemical sunscreens goes back to the name. The word “chemical” scares some, even though many harmless ingredients, like water, are chemicals.
“‘Mineral’ and ‘chemical’ is not a great dividing line because it produces a series of confusing myths,” says Ranella Hirsch, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston. Instead, she prefers to use “organic” and “inorganic,” which sounds less denigrating (the main difference here is that organic compounds contain carbon while inorganics don’t).
What You Should Know About The Banana Boat Recall
Benzene, which was found in trace amounts in recalled Banana Boat products, is not one of these common chemical sunblocks. It is a carcinogen that is banned as an ingredient in products intended for home use and is never deliberately included in SPF formulations.
“Benzene at high levels can cause leukemia, which is a cancer of the blood,” says Shirley Chi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Southern California. “It’s most easily absorbed by inhaling it, but it can also be absorbed through skin contact. So having it in sunscreens is a major problem, and it’s even worse if it’s an aerosol sunscreen that can be inhaled.” “. your lungs.”
This is not the first time benzene has been found in sunscreens. Last summer, Johnson & Johnson recalled five sunscreens (four from Neutrogena, one from Aveeno) that also contained benzene. The compound was not intentionally added to any of these sunscreens, but “was discovered as a contaminant during the production process,” says Dr. Chi. “In the case of spray sunscreen, it seems to be in the propellant,” she adds. In other words, no one is putting up benzene in sunscreen, is something that can develop during production.
Following the J&J news, a team of dermatologists examined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2003 to 2006 and from 2009 to 2018, and their research found that sunscreen use is not associated with higher concentrations of benzene in the blood among adults in the United States.
“Users of sunscreen with any frequency were less likely to have elevated blood benzene concentrations compared with never users, suggesting that the risk of systemic exposure to benzene from sunscreen use may be low. ”, the document reads. “It is possible that other factors may more strongly influence systemic benzene concentrations, including gasoline emissions, secondhand cigarette smoke, chemicals, and occupational exposures. While quality control evaluation of sunscreen products is important, addressing other sources of benzene may be more beneficial from a public health standpoint.”
Dr. Hirsch points out that exposure to benzene is, in many ways, unavoidable.
“Benzene is an organic chemical compound widely used in industry. It has multiple industrial uses, including the production of other chemicals involved in the manufacture of plastics, resins, nylon, detergents, and medicines, among others. It is also found naturally in trace amounts in a number of foods and is also produced naturally by forest fires, candle burning, and volcanoes,” says Dr. Hirsch. “The reality is that we are exposed to trace amounts of benzene in many situations, including pumping gasoline for your car, much more than you would be from a contaminant like this.”
So while reducing your exposure to benzene is beneficial, you’re probably fine if you’ve used one of Banana Boat’s contaminated sunscreens. However, according to the recall, the Food and Drug Administration recommends discontinuing the use of the following contaminated products:
According to a statement from Edgewell, the parent company of Banana Boat, while the brand is pulling its contaminated batches from shelves, it is not aware of anyone who has been harmed.
“To date, Edgewell has not received any adverse events related to this recall and we are conducting this recall out of an abundance of caution and are advising consumers to immediately stop using the affected product and dispose of it properly,” the website reads. by Banana Boat. The bottom line is that brands don’t want dangerous products on the market, which is why they operate with extreme caution, and why recalls (like this one) happen in the first place.
If you purchased any of the contaminated Banana Boat products, you are eligible for a refund and you can learn more here.
Are chemical sunscreens safe?
If you’re still a little freaked out, know that this isn’t a chemical vs. mineral sunscreen situation – the bottom line among both Banana Boat and J&J recalls is that they were all aerosol sprays that became contaminated with benzene during the process of production. . And something worth mentioning? even if there is it is benzene in other aerosol products on the market that have not yet been discovered, the concentrations are likely to be so low that you will not be exposed to a harmful level.
“The reality is that modern life has some exposure to benzene with a number of factors being especially relevant: Are you a factory worker where it is used in large quantities as a solvent? Do you park a car in a garage? firefighter? These are all examples where you would have a more significant exposure than would be potentially possible from a trace contaminant,” says Dr. Hirsch. “Sunscreen is a highly regulated product, and it is regulated as a drug here in the US. It is known to reduce the real and well-established risks of ultraviolet radiation.”
But if you want to be extra cautious, your best bet is to avoid spray sunscreens.
“My feeling is that since we know that benzene is more easily absorbed by inhalation, it would be best to avoid aerosol sunscreens altogether,” says Dr. Chi. “If you want to be absolutely sure, you can choose stick sunscreens, as they are solid sticks and therefore less likely to be contaminated with benzene. That’s what I use with my kids.” He also points out that creams and lotions with SPF are a great option, and what she uses on herself.
Shop three non-aerosol sunscreens below
Watch our senior beauty editor incorporate SPF into her makeup routine:
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