In more bad news for the sunscreen industry (and consumers trying to find the best sunscreens), scientists are asking the Food and Drug Administration to pull more than 2,000 products off the market due to contamination threats from a possible human carcinogen.
A petition filed with the FDA on Aug. 5 urged the agency to remove all sunscreens containing the ingredient octocrylene from commerce, citing the ingredient’s tendency to break down into a harmful, potentially carcinogenic ingredient called benzophenone.
Benzophenone was patented as a weed-killing chemical in 1954 by Monsanto.
The petition filers, Joe DiNardo, a toxicologist with a backgrounding in the cosmetics industry, and Craig Downs, PhD, executive directory of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia, cited research showing that even under normal temperatures (and also in high temperatures), the common sunscreen ingredient octocrylene degrades into problematic benzophenone.
The World Health Organization classifies benzophenone as a possible carcinogen.
Despite its widespread occurrence in sunscreen, the petition notes that FDA has a “zero tolerance” policy for this contaminant in other areas of contact, such as food additives and food containers.
This is the latest blow to sunscreen makers and comes less than a month after Johnson & Johnson issued a voluntary sunscreen recall due to carcinogenic benzene contamination in its Neutrogena and Aveeno spray sunscreen product lines.
This new petition’s call for removing any sunscreens containing the octocrylene ingredient is also far-reaching, impacting big brands like Coppertone, Banana Boat and more.
Sunscreen News Brings New Worries
In fact, FDA’s own previous testing found that octocrylene easily absorbs through human skin and can remain in the bloodstream for days after application. Other research suggests up to 70 percent of the ingredient can be absorbed through the skin. Its use is linked to skin allergies, aquatic toxicity and the potential for endocrine disruption. In a review of the scientific evidence published this Spring, the European Commission noted that contamination with benzophenone should be monitored and limited to trace levels.
“It is critical that sunscreen products sold to the public should reduce the risk of UV damage and skin cancer without causing harm themselves,” says David Andrews, PhD, senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that has been closely following the science on sunscreen safety and efficacy for more than a decade. “There are numerous ingredients and contaminants that may be present in sunscreen that have shown the potential for harm. The FDA should ensure that there is adequate safety data supporting the use of all sunscreen ingredients on the market, and it should set health protective limits on contaminants such as benzene and benzophenone.”
Safer Sunscreen on the Horizon?
Andrews explains that the FDA is expected to propose sunscreen rules this Fall as required by the CARES Act signed into law earlier this year. “The FDA has not made any public statements on what to expect in the final rule, but in 2019 they proposed a number of significant changes with respect to required UVA protection and sunscreen safety testing,” he says.
But many public health experts have been cautioning for years that sunscreen should not be your only defense against excessive sun exposure.
To better protect yourself from overexposure and potentially dangerous sunscreen ingredients:
- Play outside in the sun during the early morning or late afternoon hours, when the sun is less intense.
- Find or make shade.
- Opt for sun-protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Check the UV index and avoid direct sun during the highest index days.
- Completely avoid spray/aerosol sunscreens and sunscreens mixed with insect repellant.
- Choose safer sunscreens.