How does benzene get into sunscreens and how dangerous is it?

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John Found Dip. Chem., C. Chem., MRACI, MAICD

How Dangerous is It?

It soon became apparent with widespread use in the early 1900’s that benzene had some serious toxicity issues. Benzene’s general use declined over the years to the point where it is really only used as a chemical building block in organic synthesis. Later, researchers began to discover that benzene was a primary carcinogen and was responsible for large outbreaks of leukemia in exposed workers. Like all toxic substances, the dose and frequency of exposure determine the risk profile. In the light of this, most regulators around the world specify maximum limits in products intended for use in or on humans. The limits are reviewed by independent expert committees to evaluate the risk to consumers and are usually set at several orders of magnitude below known toxicity levels.

The pharmaceutical industry is heavily regulated by Government bodies around the world and has the most stringent purity specifications for medicines and devices. The cosmetic and personal care industry is not as regulated and set limits may often can be exceeded in certain products.

How does it get into sunscreens?

There are many pathways for benzene’s entry into a sun care product. It may be contained as a contaminant in one or more of the ingredients, for example fragrances and preservatives. It may be the result of a chemical reaction within the product. Benzene may also end up in the product due to a process called leaching. Leaching occurs when residual solvents included in the plastic packaging are absorbed by the product it contains. There could also be opportunities from operational exposure such as cleaning production equipment with solvents containing low levels of benzene.

What levels are considered “safe” ?

There are no levels that can be considered safe for benzene, however, carefully determined maximum levels can be considered low risk for certain product types. For some drugs which contain trace levels of benzene there is a risk/benefit approach whereby the benefit of taking the drug far outweighs the risk due to benzene. The maximum allowable limits for sunscreens is 2 parts per million. To put it in perspective, household kerosene is about 15% cyclic hydrocarbons like benzene, which is equivalent to 150,000 parts per million.

So how are sunscreens monitored in Australia?

Unlike some countries around the world sunscreens are considered medicines in Australia. As part of the regulation process the ingredients used to make sunscreens must comply with tight compendial specifications that restrict benzene traces. Sunscreens and their ingredients may only be used if they have been safety evaluated by the TGA.          

Consult a trusted manufacturer

At Wild Child, we believe in quality and we’ll only use ingredients and operating procedures of the highest standards as sunscreen manufacturers. We have strict measures in place to ensure product safety during development and manufacture. We have the perfect formulation waiting for you, so get in touch today for more information.