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Benzene in sunscreen and the fragrance problem


A country-wide sunscreen recall has caused millions of units of sunscreen to be pulled of of the shelves in retailers across the United States due to benzene contamination. Specifically, benzene was identified in Johnson & Johnson- branded sunscreens (Aveeno, Neutrogena) when independent laboratory testing detected benzene present in 26.5% of tested samples. 

Benzene is a carcinogen, which means it causes cancer, and there is no amount that is deemed to be "safe". Therefore any amount of benzene detected in sunscreen has the potential to do harm.

 

On your skin and in your blood

The FDA found that chemical sun-blockers (avobenzone, oxybenzone) have been found in high concentrations in the blood after application, which says to me that they have dermal-penetrating properties. The presence of alcohol and fragrance in most sunscreens also facilitates this direct route to the blood by breaking the skin down. And anything with the ability to penetrate into the dermis can act as a vehicle for other things to go with it into your bloodstream too. So if there's benzene in your chemical sunscreen, it has every opportunity to go into your bloodstream. 

 

The benzene question

What makes the benzene contamination confusing is that benzene is not an ingredient in sunscreen, so we are left to wonder, how did benzene get in these sunscreens? How long has it been there? And, is it in other sunscreens too?

To answer the benzene question, I would (for now) assume that benzene is only present in the products that were tested and subsequently pulled from the shelves. And then I would look at what these sunscreens have in common and go from there.

The recall included the following products:

Neutrogena Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen
Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen
Neutrogena Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen
Aveeno Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen

 

The ingredient list for each product is:

Neutrogena Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen

Active ingredients:

Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 15%, Octisalate 5%, Octocrylene 10%, Oxybenzone 6%

Inactive ingredients:

Alcohol denat.,isobutane, octyldodecyl neopentanoate, acrylates/octylacrylamide copolymer, butyloctyl salicylate, dimethicone, acrylates/dimethicone copolymer, fragrance, tocopheryl acetate, chrysanthemum parthenium (feverfew) flower/leaf/stem juice

Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen

Active ingredients:

Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 8%, Octisalate 5%, Octocrylene 4%, Oxybenzone 5%

Inactive ingredients:

alcohol denat., isobutane, acrylates/octylacrylamide copolymer, dimethicone, tocopheryl acetate, decylene glycol, ethylhexylglycerin, acrylates/dimethicone copolymer, fragrance

Neutrogena Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen

Active ingredients:

Avobenzone 3% , Homosalate 10% , Octisalate 5% , Octocrylene 10%

Inactive ingredients:

SD Alcohol 40-B, Dimethicone, Trisiloxane, Diisopropyl Adipate, Acrylates/Octylacrylamide Copolymer, Acrylates/Dimethicone Copolymer, Tocopheryl Acetate, Fragrance, Chrysanthemum Parthenium (Feverfew) Flower/Leaf/Stem Juice

 

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen

Active ingredients:

Avobenzone (3%), Homosalate (15%),Octisalate (5%), Octocrylene (10%),
Oxybenzone (6%)

Inactive ingredients

Alcohol Denat., Isobutane, Butyloctyl Salicylate, Acrylates/ Octylacrylamide Copolymer, Cyclopentasiloxane, Acrylates/Dimethicone Copolymer, Fragrance, Tocopheryl Acetate, Diethylhexyl 2,6 – Naphthalate, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Retinyl Palmitate, Tocopherol

Aveeno Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen

Active ingredients:

Avobenzone (3%), Homosalate (10%), Octisalate (5%), Octocrylene (10%)

Inactive ingredients:

Alcohol Denat., Isobutane, Dicaprylyl Carbonate, Polyester-7, Acrylates/Octylacrylamide Copolymer, Neopentyl Glycol Diheptanoate, Fragrance, Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Oil, Ascorbyl Palmitate

 

Both the recalled Aveeno and Neutrogena sunscreens have the following shared characteristics:

  1. They're aerosol sunscreens
  2. They're chemical sunscreens (contain chemical blockers such as avobenzone and oxybenzone)
  3. They contain alcohol as an inactive ingredient
  4. They contain fragrance

 

Since benzene was not an added ingredient into the sunscreens above, that means that either benzene was a contaminant accidentally introduced into the product as a result of factory contamination or benzene was synthesized within the sunscreen itself during the manufacturing process.

If the factory accidentally introduced benzene into the sunscreen then there would be more than just these sunscreens contaminated and it wouldn't just happen to aerosol sunscreens. We would see it in sunscreen creams as well, and as of now that has not been discovered.

Therefore its most likely that the benzene contamination in the above sunscreens is due to a combination of the chemical sunscreens active ingredients, the presence of alcohol in the formula  and/ or use of fragrance. 

The lingering danger

Specifically, I believe that the inactive ingredients caused the degradation of certain active ingredients, and the degradation of the active ingredients released benzene as a byproduct. I believe this because the concentration of benzene in tested samples varied depending on their age, which means that a reaction was occurring within the product itself that released benzene. 

A lot of studies are pointing to the alcohol as the main culprit for initiating a benzene synthesis reaction, but no one is talking about the fragrance in the sunscreens. 

Fragrance for sunscreens, cosmetics and skin care is made of essential oils and/or their terpene components. Essential oils/terpenes are the volatile aromatic compounds of plants. This means that they are highly reactive and that means they cause chemical reactions. When chemical reactions occur, certain things get broken down and other things are made. In this case, is it possible that the fragrance in the sunscreens broke down the chemical active ingredients and made benzene? Or perhaps just heat in the presence of terpenes can cause benzene synthesis?

Well there is some evidence in the scientific literature to suggest this is true:

A study published here  detected benzene in infant carrot juice and suggested that "terpenes that may act as precursors for benzene formation during food processing." The heating process during the manufacturing of food or sunscreen could be enough to cause benzene synthesis from the terpenes present in the product. 

 Another study published here determined that heating of oils containing terpenes released a significant amount of benzene:

 

Table 1 shows significant presence of benzene after samples containing terpenes limonene, linalool and myrcene were exposed to heat (vaporized). The Scheme above shows how terpenes breakdown after heat exposure to form benzene. 

 

Another study examined the severe damage caused by lungs after inhaling hash oils containing terpenes and determined that benzene formed as a result of the heating of terpenes within the oils caused lung injury. 

 

OUMERE is and always will be fragrance-free

I have gone on for years about the dangers of fragrance and essential oils in skin care. Fragrance, which is made up of essential oils has no skin benefit and therefore its only function is to make your skin care more marketable to you. And this is all at the cost of your health. Fragrance and essential oils break the skin down, cause acne, premature skin aging, and open up a direct route to your blood stream for contaminants to enter. 

And now I believe that the terpenes that make up the essential oils that make up the fragrance in your sunscreen are now creating a carcinogenic compound within your sunscreen. Benzene is made from heating of terpenes, and sunscreen manufacturing requires heat. Therefore the fragrance in your sunscreen is creating a cancer-causing compound in the bottle. 

One of the reasons why I put the OUMERE sunscreen on the top of the priority list is because I knew that there were a litany of problems with commercial sunscreens. And the biggest problem was the fragrance in every single one of them. Both chemical and mineral sunscreens all contained fragrance. It is absurd that a product that is supposed to prevent cancer can actually cause and that is what essential oils do. So I wanted to create a better product and a safe one. 

There is a lot wrong with skin care. And the wrong begins with marketing. The fragrance in these sunscreens that is causing carcinogenic synthesis is there because a fragrant product sells. And these companies know that. And at the end of the day a company who uses fragrance and essential oils care more about a sellable product than a safe one. 

 

 

 

 References

Anderson, R. P., & Zechar, K. (2019). Lung injury from inhaling butane hash oil mimics pneumonia. Respiratory medicine case reports26, 171-173.

Downs, C. A., DiNardo, J. C., Stien, D., Rodrigues, A. M., & Lebaron, P. (2021). Benzophenone accumulates over time from the degradation of octocrylene in commercial sunscreen products. Chemical Research in Toxicology34(4), 1046-1054.

Lachenmeier, D. W., Kuballa, T., Reusch, H., Sproll, C., Kersting, M., & Alexy, U. (2010). Benzene in infant carrot juice: further insight into formation mechanism and risk assessment including consumption data from the DONALD study. Food and chemical toxicology48(1), 291-297.

Matta MK, Zusterzeel R, Pilli NR, et al. Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2019;321(21):2082–2091. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5586

Meehan-Atrash, J., Luo, W., & Strongin, R. M. (2017). Toxicant formation in dabbing: the terpene story. ACS omega2(9), 6112-6117.