A new study has revealed that a well-known carcinogen can be found in multiple brands of sunscreen. The news comes just as summer arrives and people begin to slather themselves with the product once more, in line with official guidance.
Sunscreen: The Hidden Dangers
Valisure, an online pharmacy that tests medications and supplements, tested almost 300 different sunscreen products, from 69 different companies. 27% contained benzene, a chemical linked to leukaemia and other forms of blood cancer. Of those batches that contained the chemical, 14 contained between 2.78 and 6.26 parts per million.
At present, the FDA has a conditional restriction on benzene in products set at 2 parts per million. But the agency says “if their use is unavoidable in order to produce a drug product with a significant therapeutic advance, then their levels should be restricted.”
Valisure has already sent an open letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urging the agency to immediately recall batches of sunscreen they say have been contaminated with the harmful chemical. “Valisure is asking for a recall of the contaminated batches and requesting FDA better define limits for benzene contamination in drug and cosmetic products,” the pharmacy said.
The news came as a surprise to some, but not to others
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the arm of the World Health Organization that deals specifically with cancer research, notes that benzene exposure has been linked with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. [R]
“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,” said David Light, Founder and CEO of Valisure.
Earlier this year, Valisure also detected harmful levels of benzene in dozens of batches of hand sanitizers produced in the U.S. Out of 260 hand sanitizer products tested, 44 (17%) contained benzene.
As part of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the FDA allowed an interim limit of 2 parts per million (ppm) for benzene in liquid hand sanitizers in order to help meet high demand. However, among the batches of hand sanitizer tested by Valisure, the highest level of benzene detected was 16.1 parts for million, more than eight times the FDA’s temporary limit.
Benzene is often used as an industrial solvent. Although hand sanitiser and sunscreen manufacturers may not be knowingly purchasing and using benzene, they could be using solvents contaminated with the carcinogen, said Daniel Teitelbaum, an expert on benzene exposure.
Cigarette smoke and petrol fumes are among the most common sources of benzene exposure. Studies in the past two decades have found a two-to-four-times higher risk of leukaemia in children who live in homes close to service stations. “Here’s the problem with benzene,” Teitelbaum said. “Benzene is ubiquitous.”
Benzene is also suspected of being an endocrine disruptor. We have covered endocrine disruptors, with a particular focus on xenoestrogens, in great detail in recent months. Professor Shanna Swan, a world expert on fertility, has even gone so far as to suggest that these chemicals may be responsible for a ‘spermageddon’ crisis in coming decades, as male fertility rates decline precipitously.
If Benzene is an endocrine disruptor, this wouldn’t be the first time such chemicals have been found in sunscreen. A 2016 study found that a number of UV-filtering chemicals commonly found in sunscreens interfere with human sperm cells, with some mimicking the effects of the hormone progesterone.
“These results are of concern and might explain in part why unexplained infertility is so prevalent,” said the study’s senior investigator, Niels Skakkebaek, MD, DMSc, a professor at the University of Copenhagen and a researcher at the Copenhagen University Hospital, Rigshospitalet.
He called for clinical studies to investigate whether chemical UV filters affect human fertility, adding, “Our study suggests that regulatory agencies should have a closer look at the effects of UV filters on fertility before approval.”
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