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Sunscreen And Aloe Products Recalled For Containing Carcinogenic Chemical

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There's a recall out now for some sunscreen and after-sun products. It's because testing detected benzene in product samples, a toxic chemical that's a known carcinogen. Here to tell us more is NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Hello.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, let's give listeners a chance to grab a pencil before we list the specific products being recalled because there are quite a few of them. But let's start with the benzene aspect. Benzene is not supposed to be in sunscreen.

GODOY: Right. It's not supposed to be there. Benzene is in gasoline, crude oil and cigarette smoke. It's an industrial solvent used to make things like plastics. They don't know how benzene got into these products, but it appears to be an industrial contaminant. They still have to figure that out, though.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, what specific products are being recalled here? And I do have my pencil.

GODOY: Well, the sunscreens involved are all spray sunscreens made by Johnson & Johnson. That includes Neutrogena Beach Defense and Ultra Dry Sport and Aveeno's Protect and Refresh. CVS also recalled its After Sun Aloe Vera and After Sun Aloe Vera Spray. Both companies say the move is out of an abundance of caution.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why are they being tested?

GODOY: Well, there's an independent testing company called Valisure, and they run tests for products sold by their pharmacy partner. One day, a customer asked them to test sunscreens for a bunch of contaminants, and they said, sure. But David Light, Valisure's CEO, says he was surprised when his chief scientific officer added benzene to the list of things to test for.

DAVID LIGHT: Honestly, I thought would be a waste of time. It's been known as being very harmful to humans for over a hundred years.

GODOY: But when they tested a wide variety of sunscreens, they got a hit on benzene in a lot of samples.

LIGHT: So we found that it really appears to be a pretty broad issue in sunscreens and after-sun care products. So it was honestly quite shocking to me that this is what we were finding.

GODOY: Johnson & Johnson says when they heard about this, they did their own testing and realized contamination was there and worked with the FDA to issue a recall.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How much benzene is actually in the products being recalled? I mean, how concerned should we be?

GODOY: Well, benzene is a known carcinogen. No level of exposure is considered safe. That said, the levels found in sunscreens were relatively low. So by themselves, they don't pose a big risk. That's according to Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum of the Colorado School of Public Health. He spent decades studying benzene exposure. But he says the problem is that we are exposed to low levels of benzene from various sources all the time, in the air we breathe from things like petrochemical refining and vehicle exhaust.

DANIEL TEITELBAUM: And that, of course, adds up. And that's why low levels of any single product used repeatedly combined with all of our background exposures increases the rates of cancer in the population.

GODOY: Teitelbaum says it's likely most of the benzene found in these sunscreens is evaporating, and only a little bit is being absorbed in the skin. But you don't want all of those exposures from various sources to add up over time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where does this leave consumers, exactly?

GODOY: Well, stop using the sunscreens that have been recalled. But it's important to keep using sunscreen to protect against skin cancer. Dr. Adam Friedman is chair of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine. His advice when shopping for sunscreens is to stay away from spray sunscreens for now.

ADAM FRIEDMAN: Go back to basics - you know, the creams and lotions and liquids. Those have been around forever.

GODOY: He says mineral-based sunscreens - so zinc oxide and titanium oxide - are a good bet, especially for little kids, because they don't absorb into the skin.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is sound advice. NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy, thank you very much.

GODOY: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIBE2VIBE'S "BLINDING LIGHTS (COVER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.