Johnson & Johnson Recalls Sunscreen Products Over Benzene Contamination

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on July 27, 2021

Johnson & Johnson Recalls Sunscreen Products Over Benzene Contamination

Last week, Johnson & Johnson issued a voluntary recall of five of its sunscreen product lines. Internal testing revealed the products contained low levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. Benzene is not a listed ingredient in any of the sunscreens. How the chemical found its way into Johnson & Johnson’s products is unclear. The recall comes at a time of record-breaking temperatures and heat waves throughout the country this summer season.

The Scope of the Recall

The recall is for the following five aerosol sunscreen brands sold by Johnson & Johnson: Neutrogena Beach Defense, Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport, Neutrogena Invisible Daily, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer, and Aveeno Protect + Refresh. Johnson & Johnson issued the recall, and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) published it on its website.

Johnson & Johnson has not released data concerning each brand’s number of sales or the amount of product already released into the consumer market. However, Johnson & Johnson distributed the products nationwide through different retail channels. Johnson & Johnson has alerted distributors and retailers and is arranging for returns of the products. CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart publicly stated they are complying with the recall. Walmart offered a refund to customers who have purchased the recalled products. Retailers selling the products have advised consumers to cease use and discard the contaminated sunscreens. Nonetheless, consumers should continue to take appropriate sun protection measures and use other sunscreens.

Benzene Exposure in Johnson & Johnson Sunscreen

The company issued the recall in response to a petition from online pharmacy, Valisure. Two months ago, Valisure filed its petition with the FDA concerning higher-than-recommended benzene levels in Johnson & Johnson sunscreen products. According to Valisure, 27% of the samples tested contained detectable amounts of benzene. Some samples contained up to three times the FDA concentration limit of two parts per million. Valisure has not released the exact levels of benzene it found in Johnson & Johnson’s sunscreens. But according to the company, “daily exposure to benzene in these aerosol sunscreen products at the levels detected in our testing would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences.” The recall also emphasizes that humans are exposed to benzene on a daily basis in both indoor and outdoor environments.

What is Benzene?

What exactly is benzene and how can it harm us? Benzene is a component of gasoline. Companies frequently use benzene in a number of products worldwide, including plastics, resins, nylon, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Natural processes, such as volcanoes and forest fires, form the compound. Benzene is also a product of human activities such as tobacco smoke, motor vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions. It evaporates into the air quickly and dissolves only slightly in water.

Benzene exposure can occur through inhalation, ingestion, or from skin contact. The carcinogen’s effects depend on the manner and level of exposure. Immediate symptoms range from drowsiness, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, unconsciousness, and even death. Benzene harms the body by causing cells not to function properly. It can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies. Long-term exposure to the chemical at high enough levels can cause leukemia or other blood cancers.

How Can the Experts Weigh In?

With the recall still very new, there have not yet been any lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson. However, because of the ubiquity of sunscreen in the summer, the products could have affected a large number of consumers. Many consumers may be impacted because of the amount of products this recall may involve.

In the event of litigation, attorneys will undoubtedly need the expertise of cosmetic chemists. These experts will determine what and how much benzene there is in the sunscreens. Many cosmetics and personal care items do, in fact, contain chemicals known to be carcinogens. Therefore, product liability litigation  may hinge on how much of a chemical can be in a product while still deeming it “safe.” Government regulators in these industries can also provide guidance as to acceptable levels of benzene in personal care products. Currently, the FDA recognizes the high danger of benzene but does not outrightly ban its use. The FDA permits its use if it is “unavoidable” in the production of a product “with a significant therapeutic advance.”

Some doctors, such as dermatologists, maintain there is no acceptable amount of benzene in a skincare product. Certain doctors assert this because of how easy it is to ingest, inhale, or absorb these products into our bodies.

Interestingly, Johnson & Johnson has maintained that benzene is not an ingredient in its sunscreens. The company implied that the detection may have been due to a contamination or manufacturing defect.

Other Johnson & Johnson Litigation

This recall is just one of many legal issues Johnson & Johnson has been experiencing with a range of products. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused the company’s arguments appealing a $2.1 billion verdict. The verdict centered around the link between its talc powder products and the development of ovarian cancer. There are currently over 25,000 ovarian cancer lawsuits still pending. The company is also facing lawsuits related to its transvaginal mesh products as well as its opioid medications.

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