There’s a link between sunscreens and cancer, new research found

With the recall of sunscreens due to the discovery of cancer-causing ingredients, how is a consumer to know what to buy in order to stay safe from the sun’s harmful rays, while also avoiding dangerous sun products? Read on for all you need to know this summer. 

woman having facial care
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

The pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson announced it is voluntarily recalling a total of 14 sunscreen products from five different products lines after finding low levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, in some of the products.

J&J recommends consumers stop using and discard its Aveeno and Neutrogena aerosol sunscreens. The company also notified distributors and retailers to stop selling the sprays and is arranging for the return of the products, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization that provides consumers with information on creating a healthy lifestyle and environment.

Benzene, a popular industrial chemical, is not used as an ingredient in the sunscreen formulations, so it is not listed on product labels. But it may have contaminated the products during the manufacturing process, says EWG. According to, the Food and Drug Administration suggests that no level of benzene is safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention links long-term exposure to benzene to leukemia and other blood cancers.

In May, Valisure, an independent pharmacy and laboratory, tested sunscreen sprays and lotions and detected high levels of benzene in 78 of nearly 300 popular sunscreens and after-sun products. The lab petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to recall these contaminated batches.

Multiple studies in the past few months have documented the widespread occurrence of concerning contaminants in personal care products, including benzene in sunscreens and hand sanitizers and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in nearly half of tested cosmetics. PFAS are a group of man-made chemical substances that may be harmful to our health, say experts.

“The FDA should set and enforce standards for chemical contaminants in everyday products like sunscreen so that consumers don’t need to rely on independent testing from labs like Valisure,” said EWG’s senior scientist David Andrews.

Although sunscreen sprays may seem appealing for use on children, who are constantly on the move, they may not coat the skin enough to ensure proper protection.

“For 15 years, EWG has warned consumers about the health hazards linked to harmful ingredients that may be used in sunscreens,” said Carla Burns, EWG’s senior director of cosmetic science. “In that time, we’ve seen a substantial rise in sunscreen sprays. More than a quarter of the sunscreens reviewed in the 2021 sunscreens guide are sprays.”

In 2019, the FDA recommended more safety tests of all spray and powder sunscreen products to ensure they cannot be inhaled deep into the lungs, where they could do irreversible damage. In pilot tests, the agency found that three in 14 sprays would not meet its proposed standard but did not say which products to avoid, according to EWG.

EWG advises that consumers should avoid all spray and powder sunscreen products. In May, the organization released its 15th annual Guide to Sunscreens. The best-scoring recreational sunscreens on EWG’s list contain the mineral-based active ingredients zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or both, since they have fewer health concerns and offer excellent sun protection. Zinc oxide especially provides good protection from both UVA and UVB rays and is stable in the sun.

“We expect the FDA to finalize its new sunscreens rules this fall,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president of government affairs. “We hope the agency sets deadlines for companies to test their sunscreens for contaminants like benzene.”

Here are some more tips to remember when selecting a sunscreen:

  • Choose a lotion instead of a spray – sunscreen sprays pose inhalation risks and may provide inadequate protection.
  • If you must use a pump or spray, apply it to your hands first and then wipe it on your skin.
  • Nine of the 14 recalled products advertise an SPF over 50, which EWG recommends avoiding because of its diminishing value.

Shoppers can download EWG’s Healthy Living App to get ratings and safety information on sunscreens and other personal care products. EWG’s sunscreen label decoder can also help consumers looking for safer sunscreens.