Johnson & Johnson announced Wednesday that five of its aerosol sunscreen products are being recalled after some samples were found to contain low levels of benzene, a chemical linked to blood cancers such as leukemia.
“While benzene is not an ingredient in any of our sunscreen products, it was detected in some samples of the impacted aerosol sunscreen finished products,” Johnson & Johnson said, adding that the recall was for all SPF levels and sizes. The company did not disclose the levels of benzene detected in its testing, but said in its statement that, based on exposure modeling and Environmental Protection Agency guidance, “daily exposure to benzene in these aerosol sunscreen products at the levels detected in our testing would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences.”
A representative from Johnson & Johnson said by email that after seeing the Valisure report, the company “immediately began a comprehensive end-to-end investigation of our manufacturing process and raw materials, including internal testing and a thorough data review.” The company is still investigating how the contamination happened.
Benzene, a component of gasoline and a frequently used solvent for rubber and waxes, is highly flammable and widely used worldwide. Long-term and repeated exposure to the chemical at high enough levels can cause leukemia or other cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The carcinogen’s effects vary depending on whether it is inhaled, ingested or gets on a person’s skin. Symptoms range from dizziness to irregular heartbeat, but the highest levels of exposure can also lead to death.
The New Jersey-based company, which said it had notified the Food and Drug Administration of the recall announcement, urged consumers to immediately stop using the five sunscreen products listed, dispose of them appropriately and find alternative sun protection.
“Sunscreen use is critical to public health,” Johnson & Johnson said. “It is important that people everywhere continue to take appropriate sun protection measures, including the continued use of alternative sunscreen.”
The recall, which is happening amid a summer of major heat waves across the country, came months after the independent laboratory Valisure announced that it had found benzene in 78 sunscreens and after-sun products.
While the news generated alarming headlines, some experts and dermatologists have emphasized that sunscreen is not unsafe and that the chances of dangerous exposure levels were very low. Valisure CEO David Light said the number of times that benzene was found in testing, which included 294 batches of products from 69 companies, “doesn’t appear to be an issue directly with sunscreen.”
The original Valisure report found trace levels of benzene in both sprays and lotions made by Neutrogena and Aveeno, but the company is only recalling the five aerosols. According to Martyn Smith, a professor of toxicology and the Kenneth Howard and Marjorie Witherspoon Kaiser Endowed Chair in Cancer Epidemiology at University of California at Berkeley, benzene is most likely to evaporate before it’s absorbed through the skin; inhaling it can be more of a risk.
Still, Smith does not think the contaminated sunscreens pose much risk because “you don’t apply them several times a day for your lifetime.”
Smith also said that because many people tend to apply spray sunscreens outside, the benzene will volatize, especially in wind and sun, and users won’t inhale very much. “It’s probably somewhere around the same [level of benzene] as pumping gas and driving a certain distance,” he said. “It’s not going to be a very big risk because you’re only exposed for a minute or so ... and if you’re outside the benzene will dissipate into very low concentrations quickly.”
Benzene aside, however, consumers should be wary of applying any aerosol sunscreens, Smith said, because “there are a lot of volatile chemicals that are in there [aerosol sunscreen] apart from benzene that are propellants and other things that are coming out that you shouldn’t inhale.” He suggested that people avoid applying aerosols in enclosed places, like the bathroom, avoid inhaling concentrated doses and hold their breath while applying the products.
Teresa Murray, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund’s Consumer Watchdog, said in a statement on PIRG’s website that the FDA had failed to protect consumers by ordering a recall. “We shouldn’t have to wait for one of the companies themselves to recall potentially dangerous products.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Murray said that she worries that, without more context, consumers could become fearful of sunscreen as a whole. “I hope that people don’t just think that all sunscreens are going to cause cancer,” she said. She called for more transparency around the Johnson & Johnson recall, adding, “that’s what builds trust among consumers. People will fill in the gaps in their mind, and oftentimes they’ll gravitate to the worst-case scenario.”
According to a representative at the FDA, the federal agency does not have the authority to require drug recalls in most cases. The representative also said by email that the Valisure citizen petition raised concerns about the level of benzene in certain sunscreens and related products.
“The FDA evaluates and assesses the information provided in citizen petitions of this type and, generally, initiates an independent testing and verification process,” an FDA official told The Post.
The sunscreen recall is another blow for Johnson & Johnson, which has faced court losses and damages claims in recent years stemming from issues involving products such as opioid painkillers, baby powder and vaginal mesh implants.
Consumers may contact the JJCI Consumer Care Center 24/7 with questions or to request a refund by calling 1-800-458-1673.