- A 2020 FDA study found that the body absorbs ingredients in chemical sunscreens at levels that surpass the FDA’s safety limit.
- However, it’s unclear if this has any adverse health effects — and you should still wear sunscreen to protect against harmful UV radiation.
- Mineral sunscreens are an alternative you can use to stay protected and prevent sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Sunscreen is a staple for healthy skin, especially during the summer when you’re more likely to be lounging outside. But is there something more worrisome lurking in that bottle than basic SPF protection?
A small FDA study published in JAMA in 2020 found that the body absorbs unusually high levels of certain active ingredients that are common in chemical sunscreens. These ingredients are avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate.
But does absorbing these ingredients into the bloodstream mean that sunscreen is bad for you? Here’s what you need to know.
Sunscreen risks are unclear
It’s important to understand what the FDA study found, and what it didn’t.
“Up until this point, sunscreens were not considered to be a concern at all,” says Rivka Stone, MD, an assistant professor at the Phillip Frost Department of Dermatology & Cutaneous Surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “But what they had found were that the levels exceeded the threshold for a lack of concern.”
Active ingredients are not supposed to be absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream at levels exceeding 0.5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) without further testing. But, in the study, researchers found that oxybenzone, when applied every two hours according to the bottle’s directions, was being absorbed at a level of 258.1 ng/mL. That’s 516 times the FDA’s limit.
Oxybenzone had the highest rate of absorption, but the other five active ingredients were also being absorbed in extremely high levels. “Those range from nine times to 37 times the cutoff rate set by the FDA. That absorption is occurring, but not to the rate of oxybenzone,” says Apple Bodemer, MD, a dermatologist at UW Health.
However, it’s not clear if this poses an actual health risk, says Bodemer.
“Some of these chemicals have been in other personal care products for a long time,” Bodemer says. “In particular, oxybenzone has always been one that’s gotten a lot of bad press — and, possibly, rightfully so.”
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Nearly 97% of Americans have some oxybenzone in their system, and the rate is higher for those who regularly wear sunscreen, according to 2008 study. There is some worry oxybenzone may disrupt the body’s natural hormone function, although the evidence is inconclusive.
The other five chemicals in the FDA study contain “varying levels of risk” for issues like allergic reactions or hormone disruptions, Bodemer says. But the risks are likely lower because the amount at which they’re absorbed into the bloodstream is much less compared to oxybenzone.
Again, it’s not certain that these ingredients are causing any issues whatsoever, but the FDA has said that it plans to take a closer look.
You still need UV protection
While researchers are still determining if sunscreen poses any danger, they absolutely know that the sun poses risks.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the occasional, high-intensity dose or simply a lifetime of moderate sun exposure. Both will damage the cells in your skin and increase your risk of cancer. You may just develop a different type of skin cancer depending on the circumstance.
Important: UV radiation from sunlight is a well-known carcinogen that can cause skin cancer.
For example, the occasional, high-intensity dose — like from laying on a beach for hours without protection or spending time in a tanning bed — increases one’s risk of developing melanoma, Bodemer says.
Melanoma is the deadliest of all skin cancer types. Over 100,000 new cases of melanoma are expected in 2020, along with 6,850 deaths according to the American Cancer Society.
On the other hand, a lifetime of exposure to the sun leaves a person at risk for developing other types of skin cancer like basal cell carcinoma.
Non-melanoma cancers, “while typically not life-threatening, they can cause significant disfigurement, especially when you are dealing with skin cancers on the face,” Bodemer says.
Treatment for skin cancer frequently involves removing the lesion with surgical excision, but can also include steps like chemotherapy and radiation.
How to protect yourself from UV rays
Sun damage accumulates over time and can’t be reversed, which is why it’s so essential to make wearing sunscreen a habit.
“It’s a little bit challenging to educate patients,” says Stone. “The sun exposure they get in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, they won’t see the effects until 20 years down the line — both in terms of the aging, as well as the skin cancer effects.”
If you have any concerns about sunscreens, discuss them with your dermatologist. Stone recommends a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen of SPF 30 or above to prevent sun damage.
There are two types of sunscreens you can buy:
- Chemical sunscreens work by attaching to the skin, absorbing UV radiation, and converting it to heat.
- Physical or mineral blockers — a.k.a. zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — are like “a force shield,” Bodermer says. “They coat their skin, and the UV radiation is reflected off the particles in the sunscreen.”
There is no evidence that mineral sunscreens significantly penetrate the skin, making them a safe alternative for those worried about the ingredients in chemical sunscreens.
However, Bodemer says there are concerns over aerosolized, or spray versions, of mineral sunscreens. Because you can potentially inhale titanium dioxide, and to a lesser extent
oxide, which can damage the lungs.
Sun protection tips
- Apply sunscreen every two hours when in direct sunlight.
- Avoid direct sunlight during peak hours, usually from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (peak hours may vary depending on your location and time of year)
- Wear wide-brimmed hats at least four inches across.
- Wear wide-lens sunglasses to prevent sunburned eyes.
- Choose clothing with a UPF rating of 50, which means only one-fiftieth of the sun’s rays will penetrate the fabric even when wet.
There’s no evidence that sunscreen is bad for you. Though a small 2020 FDA study found that the body can absorb some chemicals for certain sunscreens, it hasn’t been proven that it has any adverse health effects.
However, it is proven that failing to protect yourself from the sun’s UV rays can increase your risk for multiple types of skin cancer. Make sure to always apply sunscreen when outside in direct sunlight.
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