Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Which sunscreen is best for you? Tips after spray sunscreen recalled for cancer-causing chemical

Banana Boat recalls batches that may contain a known carcinogen called benzene. A chemist talks through general health risks with sunscreens and tips for sun protection.
top down view of stick and spray sunscreen on grass

Story at a glance

  • A Banana Boat spray sunscreen has been recalled because of benzene contamination.

  • Benzene may be a byproduct of other ingredients and is a known carcinogen.

  • Inhaling spray and powder sunscreens could be detrimental to your health.

Spray sunscreens have increased in popularity in recent years, although there may be some health risks associated with them.  

A third-party study of 69 brands found that 27 percent of batches contained detectable levels of a known carcinogen called benzene.

Recently, Edgewell Personal Care, the company that makes Banana Boat sunscreens, put out a voluntary recall for three batches of spray sunscreen. The sunscreen, called Banana Boat Hair & Scalp Sunscreen Spray SPF 30, was found to be contaminated with benzene, thought not all bottles may have benzene in them. The specific batches that may be affected are listed on the company’s website according to their batch numbers and consumers can get reimbursed. 

Benzene is not included as an ingredient but can be a byproduct of petroleum products that go into spray sunscreens, like thickening agents, spray propellants and antifungal preservatives. Edgewell does not report the concentrations of benzene found in their products.  

The study found that many brands had sunscreens that contained benzene levels over the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended maximum of 2 parts per million (ppm). 

The potential link between benzene from sunscreens and cancer risk has not been thoroughly studied yet. Although specific testing by brands and batches is not publicly available information, keeping the concentration under 2 ppm is an important part of risk calculation.  

“Contamination, which seems to be relatively widespread and ongoing, is incredibly frustrating from a consumer perspective — that this issue has been known for many months,” says chemist David Andrews, who is a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). 

Spray sunscreens may be more convenient, but you may also end up with less effective coverage than traditional cream sunscreens. A study based in Australia found that users lost 28 to 93 percent of sunscreen when applied during 20 kilometers-per-hour wind, or about 12 miles per hour, and lost 32 to 79 percent of sunscreen when applied in 10 kilometers-per-hour wind, approximately 6 miles per hour.  

In these light and moderate wind conditions, researchers estimated that someone may need to use a whole bottle of spray sunscreen in order to get enough coverage. 

Spray sunscreen may be a health risk if it is inhaled as well.  

“We have particular concerns about mineral-based ingredients that may have much smaller particle sizes that could also be inhaled,” says Andrews.  

Smaller particles may be able to penetrate through lung tissue and get lodged into cells, which then may eventually cause cancer and other health issues. 

This is also a concern for another category of sunscreens that are increasing in popularity: powder sunscreens. Andrews says he’s concerned about the risk to health if powder sunscreens are inhaled, especially if they are mineral-based sunscreens. There currently isn’t enough testing in place to know which brands use ingredients with particle sizes that are too small. 

The new FDA rules for sunscreen that are set to go into effect this fall would require more market testing of sunscreen products. These new rules will add a number of new UVA protection and will add testing requirements for particle size. Companies will also be required to add additional tests for ingredients to ensure safety and effectiveness. 

If you have any bottles of sunscreen that are from the recalled batches, you should stop using those immediately. It might be difficult especially with young children but if possible, use stick and lotion sunscreens, wear protective layers of clothing and hats, and regularly reapply sunscreen if spending several hours outside. Andrews recommends that if you need to use spray sunscreen, spray it into your hands first and rub it in. 

You can find more information about sunscreen safety at EWG’s website