An independent research laboratory, Valisure, has recently discovered the carcinogen benzene in 78 batches of sunscreens and after-sun personal care products. The discovery has alerted several reporters and executives, and the chemical supplies industry in the US is keeping a close eye on developments. The laboratory further went on to say that since there are no therapeutic benefits to benzene as a class 1 solvent, it should be removed from care products. Valisure has also called on the US Food and Drug Administration Agency (FDA) to recall these products.
What is Benzene?
Benzene is a colorless or mild-yellow chemical used as a solvent in pharmaceutical and chemical companies. Beyond certain levels, it is a well-known carcinogen. The chemical’s link with forming blood cancers in humans has been proven in numerous studies, even at trace levels of parts per million and below. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has characterized benzene as a carcinogen and lists “inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, skin and eye contact” as potential routes of exposure. Many of the batches tested by the laboratory had detectable levels of benzene which exceed the thresholds beyond which the cancer risk is exponentially high. The laboratory suggested that these products should be urgently recalled. One prominent issue is that agencies set no mandated maximum exposure limit. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA had set a temporary limit of 2 ppm in alcohol-based hand sanitizers, but the laboratory has found that many products even exceed this limit. Along with asking to recall the products, the laboratory has also asked the FDA to set a concentration limit for drug products (including sunscreens and care products) and a daily exposure limit. Many experts also believe that the chemical is so harmful that the maximum exposure limit should be zero.
How did it end up in care products?
Benzene is an essential building block for many chemicals in the industries, including many drugs like aspirin and other drugs. It’s also found in all fossil fuels. Some exposure to benzene is unavoidable since it is a ubiquitous contaminant in many chemical processes, including burning. It is believed that the chemical made its way into the batches as contaminants due to defective manufacturing processes. Since most of the samples tested did not have any detectable level of benzene, it is suggested that the chemical is not necessary for making these products.
The FDA is expected to start gathering more information from chemical manufacturing companies in the US regarding the levels of benzene in products. The agency will, most probably, initiate further research into the effects of contamination. It is anticipated that there will be an established daily exposure limit and contamination limit set soon. Since benzene is not an ingredient in manufacturing, there is no reason to believe that sunscreens are inherently carcinogenic. However, the manufacturers and chemical supply companies will be required to analyze and refine their processes to recognize and address the source of contamination. Experts agree that since sunscreens are effective in reducing the risks of exposure to the sun, customers need not be scared away from using them. It is reassuring that independent laboratories such as Valisure are checking care products and asking for improvements in regulatory frameworks and the quality of the products.