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Johnson & Johnson Recalls Sunscreens After Cancer-Causing Ingredient Discovered

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If you’re looking to protect your skin this summer, you might have trouble finding J&J sunscreen – at least one that doesn’t contain carcinogens. Healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson made headlines yesterday when it announced that it’s recalling most of its Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreens. The company told consumers and retailers to stop using/selling five of its six signature sunscreen products, which means a lot of sunscreen is bound to wind up in the trash.

Here’s what you need to know to stay safe this summer:

Recall at the Height of Summer

Americans are anxious to get outside and enjoy the warm weather, but the recent recall could spell trouble for many people who are planning on spending time in the sunshine.

J&J announced the recall late Wednesday after the discovery of benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer, in some of its signature summer products. Stores large and small have already started removing the possibly tainted canisters from shelves. The company didn’t disclose how much benzene it found in five of its six products, but said the levels were low enough that they shouldn’t cause health problems.

The affected products include a variety of popular aerosol sunscreens, including:

  • Neutrogena Beach Defense
  • Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport
  • Neutrogena Invisible Daily
  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer
  • Aveeno Protect + Refresh

The company’s sixth product, Neutrogena Wet Skin, won’t be affected.

J&J says there’s no reason to panic. “Out of an abundance of caution, we are recalling all lots of these specific aerosol sunscreen products,” the company said.

According to the CDC, benzene is a colorless or light-yellow liquid with a sweet odor and is considered slightly flammable. It evaporates quickly and usually sinks to low-lying areas when sprayed in the air. However, it doesn’t fully dissolve in water, usually floating on the top, which can be a danger in swimming pools.

Benzene shows up virtually everywhere in the U.S. Both natural and related to human activities, it’s found in crude oil, volcanoes, plastics, dyes, lubricants, pesticides, gasoline, and even cigarette smoke. It ranks within the top 20 chemicals by volume used in the U.S.

When it gets into your system, benzene causes cells to stop working properly. Bone marrow cells may stop producing as many red blood cells as normal, which can lead to anemia. It can also disrupt the body’s immune system by changing antibody levels and decreasing the number of white blood cells.

Health risks vary based on the length of exposure, how it’s used, the person’s age, and whether they have any pre-existing health conditions. Benzene in large enough quantities often leads to drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, rapid or irregular heartbeat, and even unconsciousness. The symptoms are even worse if it’s ingested or swallowed.

An online pharmaceutical company called Valisure LLC first raised concerns after finding high levels of benzene in Johnson & Johnson’s products. The Connecticut firm quickly contacted the FDA and urged regulators to issue a recall.

David Light, chief executive officer of Valisure, told The Wall Street Journal, “It appears Johnson & Johnson’s internal testing confirms Valisure’s concerns over benzene contamination in several sunscreen products. We hope regulators and manufacturers continue to take further action on sunscreens and other products affected by serious contamination issues.”

Valisure has spurred recalls in the past. The company has found issues with Zantac, a popular heartburn medication, and Metformin, used for diabetes, leading to both products to be recalled.

What’s Wrong with J&J?

Despite being one of the largest and most profitable healthcare companies in the world, Johnson & Johnson has a history of getting into trouble with federal regulators.

The most notable scandal happened over ten years ago, when the company was forced to recall several OTC pain medications, including Tylenol, Benadryl, Motrin, and Zyrtec, many of which were for children, due to bad odors, possible metal shavings, and other manufacturing issues. The recall drew the ire of lawmakers, and the company eventually agreed to let Congress oversee three of its manufacturing facilities. By the end, J&J lost over $1 billion in sales.

J&J later came under fire again when customers started suing after using and/or inhaling the company’s signature baby powder. The plaintiffs claimed the talc-containing hygiene product can lead to a variety of health issues, including cancer and mesothelioma, and that J&J failed to properly warn its customers. Demand for talc-based baby powder has since declined, and the company agreed to stop selling it in the U.S. and Canada altogether, replacing it with a version that uses cornstarch.

Earlier this year, the company lost 75 million doses of its notable COVID-19 vaccine. Baltimore-based CDMO Emergent BioSolutions discovered a manufacturing error in the spring, forcing them to discard 15 million doses. After weeks of inspection, regulators from the FDA ordered officials to throw away another 60 million doses.

FDA biologics and vaccines official Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., noted that the company was dealing with rapid increases in production “coupled with a lack of segregation of media preparation activities, waste flow, and personnel handling waste.”

Additional testing from J&J found problems with the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, which was also being manufactured at the CDMO plant at the same time.

Clearly, Johnson & Johnson has some issues to work out. The company’s consumer health unit raked in $14.1 billion in sales last year alone, but the recent sunscreen debacle could haunt its reputation for years to come.

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