We wear sunscreen when we go outside in order to protect ourselves from sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancers. In warm climates closer to the equator, sunscreen can be absolutely essential. But what if even the brands you thought were trustworthy, were doing more harm than good? Independent testing company Valisure recently blew the lid on 78 sunscreen products, and now asks the FDA to crack down on benzene contamination. 

Why Is Benzene Lurking In Sunscreens?

Out of 300 sunscreens and after-sun lotions from 69 different companies, Valisure found benzene in 78 products. Sometimes, it was present in higher levels than allowed by the FDA for any reason. This comes after Valisure detected benzene in certain hand sanitizers earlier this year, leading to voluntary recalls. Valisure is the same company that called out Zantac and its generic form, ranitidine, for containing carcinogens too. 

Benzene is a clear or slightly yellow flammable liquid often used as a solvent to produce products such as plastics. It’s also a known carcinogen that may cause leukemia and is responsible for some of the dangers of cigarettes. The FDA allows for unintentional, unavoidable levels of benzene up to two parts per million. However, Valisure found benzene concentrations higher than this in some products. The worst offender was Neutrogena’s SPF 100+ Ultra Sheer Weightless Sunscreen Spray, with 6.26-6.77ppm of benzene. CVS Health and Banana Boat manufacture some more of the high-benzene products revealed by Valisure, with the full list available here from pages 12 to 15. 

Associate Professor of dermatology, Christopher Bunick, argues that “There is not a safe level of benzene that can exist in sunscreen products,” adding that even consistent nanogram amounts can be dangerous. 

What Are The Dangers Of Benzene?

Benzene is dangerous even at very low concentrations. Research on workers exposed to benzene found that levels under 1ppm were still toxic to bone marrow. The workers had significantly lower blood cell counts of all types, as a result of fewer progenitor colonies in the bone marrow. Gene expression was considerably altered in the participants, including among genes involved in apoptosis and the immune response. With poorer differentiation of stem cells into blood cells, and a disrupted “self-destruct” mechanism for damaged cells, it’s no surprise that benzene may cause leukemia. In fact, other research demonstrates a 90 percent higher risk of blood cancers in the oil industry’s upstream offshore operators. They had more than double the risk of myeloma, and almost triple the risk of acute myelogenous leukemia. 

Can We Prevent Benzene Toxicity? 

Benzene is unfortunately everywhere. Not only does it naturally occur in fossil fuels, but it is also produced when you burn organic matter such as wood, gas, or petroleum. Coal coking performed in steelworks, as well as petroleum refining, generate benzene, which is kept in gasoline sold as fuel. It’s best to avoid benzene as much as you can. 

Besides leukemia and myeloma, benzene may also contribute to other cancers, such as breast cancer. Longer periods of exposure at higher levels are needed before a substantial link between breast cancer and benzene can be seen. Air pollutants from burning wood and fuel, including benzene, could explain cases of cancer that appeared long before the chemical industry, as there was no other option before electric power. 

Most of us are still unable to completely avoid benzene exposure, but we can prevent its toxicity. A study on 170 people in Qidong, China found that a full dose of a broccoli sprout drink improved benzene detoxification by 63.2 percent. The sulforaphanes in broccoli and some other cruciferous vegetables stimulate detoxification, cellular protection and antioxidant pathways. The full dose contained 40 umol of sulforaphanes, and was the only amount to provide a significant benefit. The half and one-fifth doses had no effect, however. As these beneficial compounds are more available from raw broccoli, it’s best to get them from raw sprouts. 

What Are The Best Sunscreen Brands? 

Of course, the best way to prevent benzene toxicity is to avoid it. One of the best sunscreen brands is 3rd Rock, with the primary active ingredient zinc oxide. 3rd Rock was created by Dr Guerry Grune after a trip to Australia, where zinc has been used by some residents for many years. 

Some ‘zinc sunscreen’ meant thick, chalky pastes that could double as face paint. A few brands would take advantage of this and sell bright pink sunscreens.  I didn’t start using natural sunscreen until I was 24, and most of us still use conventional products. 

After a friend developed melanoma despite consistent use of traditional sunscreens, Guerry set out to make his own all-natural line. The zinc oxide in 3rd Rock is chelated in a way that keeps it stable in an alkaline environment and keeps your skin safe from free radicals. These sunscreens also contain the essential amino acid arginine and essential oils. 

3rd Rock Sunblock is also rated by the Environmental Working Group as among the best sunscreen brands in terms of safety. Four of the five indexed products have a safety rating of 1, the highest rank given by the EWG. All ingredients of their sunscreens are natural, with no artificial, petroleum-derived components. 

The Amazing Zinc Oxide

Zinc oxide isn’t just safe, it also actively benefits your skin. Research shows that it can soothe inflammation and may therefore reduce the severity of eczema. The benefits of zinc oxide are its antioxidant, antibacterial and barrier-forming properties. As it reduces levels of histamine, which causes that annoying, itchy type of inflammation, zinc oxide is found in many calamine lotion preparations. 

Even better, zinc oxide is reef-friendly. While conventional chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate can harm marine life, non-nano zinc oxide is safe. Zinc or titanium dioxide nanoparticles are small enough for corals to ingest, and their accumulation causes cellular damage. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are already banned in Palau, Hawaii, and a few other regions. 

Enjoy Summer Without Unnecessary Benzene Exposure

Benzene is not something you want to put on your skin, thanks to its cancer-causing effects. Fortunately, there are natural zinc oxide sunscreens on the market, such as 3rd Rock, that aren’t on Valisure’s list of benzene-contaminated products. To prepare for the upcoming summer, you can purchase 3rd Rock Sunblock here, in packs of one to three.

Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.

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