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Toxic chemicals in popular sunscreens: a dermatologist explains what you need to know

Updated: Jun. 11, 2021 at 4:22 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - This weekend’s forecast calls for lots of sunscreen.

But a chemical known to cause cancer is in some of the sunscreens we use every day, according to a new report by a lab called Valisure. Nearly a third of the 78 lotions and sprays the lab tested contain the chemical.

The chemical is called benzene. Board-certified Aspirus dermatologist Dr. Patrick Kehoe says we don’t know why it’s being detected in popular sunscreens. You won’t find it on the list of ingredients.

“Benzene is a chemical ingredient that’s often used to make certain medications, detergents, dyes, plastics, it’s actually naturally found in gasoline. It’s not part of the manufacturing process for sunscreens, so it seems to be a contaminant, but it’s not exactly clear how it got in there in the first place,” he said.

A new report finds benzene in 27% of the sunscreens it tested. The Food and Drug Administration warns against benzene, but Valisure is asking the agency to better define the limits for benzene contamination.

“Unfortunately, it happens to be a carcinogen, we don’t necessarily know what levels or for how long, but it’s felt that it increases the risk of cancer,” Dr. Kehoe said.

But Dr. Kehoe says there are good ingredients we can look for.

“The physical sun blockers are Titanium dioxide and Zinc oxide, which is commonly found in diaper paste, for example. These are very safe minerals,” he explained.

And since we breathe a certain level of pollutants every day, he says we need more testing before we understand what the findings really mean. He also says the benefits of protecting against skin cancers like melanoma may presently outweigh the risk of benzene.

“And it’s not to minimize the fact that benzene is a potential carcinogen. It’s just not clear what risk this is in the setting and small amounts that are found in sunscreen,” he said. “We don’t know what to do with this study that hasn’t been validated by other studies yet.”

Dr. Kehoe says you can block the sun with more than just sunblock.

“Keep in mind that there are other things you can do to protect yourself from the sun, like protective clothing. I always wear a wide-brimmed hat. And you’ll find that most dermatologists rely more on protective clothing than they do on sunscreen,” he said.

Valisure is now calling on the FDA to recall dozens of sunscreens with an online petition. Dr. Kehoe says he’s waiting to hear more information from the FDA before tossing out any of his sunscreens.

Click here to see the petition.

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