In March 2021, researchers from the Oceanological Observatory of Banyuls-sur-Mer (Sorbonne University, CNRS), in collaboration with their American colleagues from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Clifford, Virginia, tested some sunscreen and anti-aging products purchased in France and in the USA. The products have undergone a 6-week accelerated stability aging protocol, equivalent to one year spent at room temperature. Then they were analyzed using a high-performance mass spectrometer.
“Initially, there is very little benzophenone in the products. But gradually as the product ages, there is more and more benzophenone,” told Prof. Philippe Lebaron, co-author of the study, to AFP. Indeed, after subjecting the products to the accelerated stability method, the concentration in benzophenone strongly increased in the products. "This is the first time the degradation of octocrylene into benzophenone has been demonstrated," added Pr. Lebaron.
Working with researchers at the Paris-based Sorbonne University, Downs and Joe DiNardo, a toxicologist who formerly worked in the cosmetics industry, tested 16 octocrylene-based sunscreens purchased in France and the U.S. All of them tested positive for benzophenone.
Downs and DiNardo’s findings were published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology in March. Later, Belgian researchers published similar results after testing products containing octocrylene.
Based on animal studies, the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm classifies benzophenone as a possible carcinogen. Research shows that benzophenone in sunscreens can interfere with estrogen, according to the WHO. The hormone plays a key role in the health of women and disrupting it can lead to early puberty and altered functioning of reproductive organs.
Downs’ study suggests that benzophenone was formed by degradation of octocrylene. Only sunscreens containing the UV blocker tested positive for the contaminant, and the levels increased over time. Downs has been studying the health and environmental impact of sunscreens for years. His research led Hawaii and other beach tourist destinations such as the U.S. Virgin Islands to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone, which is chemically related to benzophenone and octocrylene, because of research suggesting damage to coral reefs.
Benzophenone is associated with a wide range of toxicities, including genotoxicity, carcinogenicity, and endocrine disruption. The substance is classified as "possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the WHO.
Researchers have now asked U.S. regulators to pull some sunscreens from the market, saying they’ve found evidence of this potential carcinogen.
Scientists petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to remove from sale all sunscreens containing the active ingredient octocrylene. Products made with the chemical may contain benzophenone, a suspected carcinogen that also can interfere with key hormones and reproductive organs, according to a group led by Craig Downs, executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory that studies risks to health and the environment.
Concerns about sunscreens began heating up in 2019 when the FDA asked manufacturers for safety data on chemical ingredients, including octocrylene. In May, an independent testing lab found levels of another probable carcinogen, benzene, in several products, leading to some recalls.
FDA research shows that the body absorbs enough of sunscreens’ chemical ingredients to warrant further testing. Yet there’s no indication companies have provided the safety data the FDA requested two years ago, said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.
The FDA “takes seriously any safety concerns raised about products we regulate, including sunscreen,” said Courtney Rhodes, a spokeswoman. The agency “will continue to monitor the sunscreen marketplace to help ensure the availability of safe sunscreens for U.S. consumers,” while it evaluates the contamination concerns, she said.
The Maui City Council’s environment committee is considering even tougher laws for sunscreens. Sales and use of sun products should be restricted to those made with the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both deemed safe by the FDA, Peter Landon, a natural reserve system specialist at the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources told the committee Wednesday. Narrowing the field to those two mineral sunscreens would prevent the industry from making small changes to the banned chemicals to get around the legislation, Landon said.
Widely used sunscreens were targeted in May by a separate FDA petition after an analysis by Valisure, an independent laboratory that monitors product safety, found benzene in a range of products. J&J recalled all lots of five brands of Neutrogena and Aveeno aerosol sunscreens after the findings were released.
It’s not clear how benzene entered the products. Some part of the manufacturing process may have led to the contaminant’s appearance in sunscreens, Valisure said at the time.
Pressure on the industry may continue into next year, when the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which assembles experts to study key, contentious issues, is expected to deliver a report on sunscreens. On Thursday, a National Academies panel heard a presentation on research linking benzophenones in sunscreens to endometriosis, a painful condition in which tissue that normally grows inside a woman’s uterus forms outside the organ.
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