The great sunscreen safe-or-not-safe debate continues

Photo (c) Virojt Changyencham - Getty Images

There is a way to find safe sunscreens, but there’s a little homework involved

A war of words has erupted over the safety of many sunscreen products. Independent laboratory Valisure recently raised a red flag over high levels of benzene in close to 80 sunscreen products. The compound can be found in gasoline and cigarette smoke and has been linked to childhood leukemia and bone marrow abnormalities

The sunscreens Valisure pegs as “contaminated” include those produced by Neutrogena, Banana Boat, CVS Health, Walgreens, and Coppertone.

Subsequent to its findings, Valisure has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to recall the batches in question and to further “define limits for benzene contamination in drug and cosmetic products.”

On the other side of the argument are experts questioning whether Valisure’s study was conducted properly. Some dermatologists contend that sunscreen products are still safe to use despite Valisure’s claims.


Valisure Founder and CEO David Light said that while the benzene found in the sunscreens might be considered “trace amounts,” it can still have a negative effect.

“Benzene is one of the most studied and concerning human carcinogens known to science. Its association with forming blood cancers in humans has been shown in numerous studies at trace levels of parts per million and below. The presence of this known human carcinogen in products widely recommended for the prevention of skin cancer and that are regularly used by adults and children is very troubling,” he said.

Dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch -- called an "Expert Derm" by Allure and a "Beauty Guru" by Marie Claire -- took to social media to clear up any consumer misconceptions about Light’s claim. In a post on Instagram, she said what Valisure uncovered was “due to a contaminant during production, not related to the sunscreen ingredients themselves.” Neutrogena agrees with Hirsch about the production issue. 

"Nothing is more important than the health and safety of the people who use our products. Benzene is not an ingredient in any of our personal care products and we are reviewing the findings presented in this petition,” a Neutrogena spokesperson said.

Finding benzene-free sunscreens

Until the FDA weighs in with something official, consumers are left to follow Valisure’s warning and avoid any sunscreen it listed or pore through Dr. Hirsch’s Instagram posts looking for suggestions. However, another option might be to do a little homework.

“It's safe to select a sunscreen from the list of options that Valisure didn't detect any benzene in,” said InStyle’s Rachel Nussbaum. 

Nussman’s detective work found that even though Valisure listed products by Neutrogena, Aveeno, CVS Health, and Banana Boat, there were still sunscreens from those manufacturers that the lab did not find benzene in

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