In late May 2021, an independent laboratory, Valisure LLC, tested nearly 300 batches of various sunscreens and after-sun skincare products from nearly 70 different companies.
They found that just over 1 out of every 4 product batches they tested—27 percent, or 78 of 294 total batches —contained benzene.
No self-tanner or sunless tanning lotion was tested by Valisure.
(One batch of a deep tanning sunscreen spray was tested and found to have 0.36 parts per million benzene.)
Because the benzene that was found was a contaminant—not an intended ingredient—it is impossible to know whether a specific self-tanner includes benzene, without testing an individual product batch.
It’s also impossible to tell—without lab testing—if any other cosmetic product contains benzene, or even if another batch of the same sunscreen contains benzene.
Think of it like lettuce being recalled. Specific batches might be recalled, but new batches are harvested, packed, and stocked in your grocery store.
We don’t just stop eating lettuce altogether.
What is Benzene?
Benzene is an organic sweet-smelling colorless chemical derived from natural gas, coal, or crude oil. It’s used to make lubricants, rubber, dye, some detergents, drugs, and explosives.
Benzene is a known carcinogen, as acknowledged by the CDC, WHO, and NIOSH. It’s linked to blood cancers such as leukemia and, ideally, shouldn’t be in products that require any form of human consumption or contact.
“Benzene is carcinogenic to humans, and no safe level of exposure can be recommended.”World Health Organization, 2010
Benzene is Basically Everywhere
As much as benzene should be avoided, avoiding all contact with it is next to impossible, at least for people living in major cities, since benzene occurs in industrial emissions, car exhaust, and cigarette and forest fire smoke.
Within cars and homes, it can also be found (occasionally in even higher concentrations than outdoor spaces) in plastic and rubber as well as such products as paint, glue, cleaning products, and detergents.
“If you live in a city, chances are you’re most likely exposed to benzene at high levels on a daily basis,” says Dr. Sherene Idriss in a May 29 video, “be it from car exhaust, be it from pollution, be it from the daily wear and tear.”
“Benzene is toxic alright, and can be detected in virtually any air sample, taken anywhere.”Joe Schwarcz PhD
Benzene was a Contaminant—Not an Ingredient. You Won’t Find It on Ingredient Labels.
Benzene occurred in these sunscreen products unintentionally—or more, specifically, you won’t find it listed on any ingredient label and its appearance in products is “very likely a contaminant from the manufacturing process” involved in these and other products.
Benzene is also not a problem specific to sunscreen and after-sun skincare products.
Benzene is just as likely to appear in other cosmetic and personal care products through the same routes of contamination—shampoos, lotions, and creams.
So… Does My Self-Tanner Contain Benzene?
Benzene will not be found on the ingredient list of any self-tanner.
Dermatologists strongly recommend that people not stop using sunscreen altogether due to the recent benzene discovery in some of these products.
But this logic doesn’t necessarily apply to self-tanners, as self-tanners are very specifically not sunscreens, and in fact, most are required to contain an FDA notice to this effect.
All things considered, however, it’s not worth losing sleep over—or missing out on a perfect self-tan, particularly one done with a clean self-tanner with organic ingredients.
Purely for peace of mind, if we apply the rough math from the Valisure study, there is about a 73% chance that your self-tanner of choice does not contain benzene.
So go on, strut your self-tanned self.
Our best self-tanner recommendations hold firm and are listed here.
1. World Health Organization, “Exposure To Benzene: A Major Public Health Concern,” 2010 2. McGill Office for Science and Society, “Benzene In Your Car—and It's Not In The Gas Tank!,” March 20, 2017 3. Valisure, “Valisure Detects Benzene in Sunscreen,” May 25, 2021 4. Dr. Shereene Idriss, “The Truth About the Benzene Sunscreen Scandal,” May 29, 2021 5. U.S. FDA, “Required Warning Statement for Tanning Products Without Sunscreen,” August 24, 2020