Are Chemical Sunscreen Ingredients Potentially Harmful

Ah, summer! The sun is shining, school’s out and there’s a good chance you’ll soon be dipping your toes in a lake, ocean or pool.

The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays do miraculous things: They provide us with warmth and light, nourish plants and food crops, and trigger a reaction in our bodies that produces Vitamin D, an essential ingredient for good health–boosting the immune system, strengthening teeth and bones, healing some chronic skin conditions and enhancing mood.

But too much of the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause a sunburn. In addition, long-term UV exposure is proven to lead to photo-aging and skin cancer.

Because of these dangers, for at least 40 years, most of us have been quick to apply and reapply sunscreens that prevent the sun’s damaging rays from reaching our skin and thus prevent sunburn. There are clear benefits to this practice, as sun damage is dangerous and irreversible.

The Many Chemicals in Sunscreens

Many sunscreens rely on chemicals including oxybenzone, octocrylene and avobenzone to filter and block the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays from reaching the deep layers of our skin. There is recent controversy over the amount of these chemicals that is being absorbed into our bodies and what unintentional results that may cause.

In May 2019, the Journal of the American Medical Association published results of the FDA’s exploratory trial on the maximum usage of sunscreens to learn whether the chemicals in sunscreen are absorbed systemically. The conclusion was that, of 24 participants applying four commercial sunscreens at the maximum use conditions, results were that the blood plasma concentrations of four commonly used chemicals in sunscreen—avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule—were found to exceed the FDA threshold for waiving toxicology studies.

FDA Orders More Safety Testing for Chemical Sunscreens

In other words, we need more clinical testing to determine if the levels of these chemicals in the bloodstream are unsafe when individuals use the maximum recommended amount of sunscreen each day. The FDA has changed its regulatory requirements around sunscreen and is asking sunscreen manufacturers for additional safety data on 12 ingredients the test found were being absorbed into the body at higher rates than previously thought.

It’s important to note that both the FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology recommend that consumers continue using sunscreen. None of the 12 ingredients that merit further testing have been proven unsafe; the FDA has simply called for additional safety data.

Oxybenzone: Suspected Endocrine Disruptor

The Environmental Working Group suggests that oxybenzone, one of the most common chemical sunscreen ingredients, is a suspected endocrine disruptor, and may cause skin allergies.

Endocrine disruptors are substances that impact bodily functions including development and reproduction by affecting hormones—in this case, thyroid hormones. However, most of the data about oxybenzone and reproduction are based on animal testing, so it’s impossible to state with certainty whether these chemicals have a negative impact on human health.

There is data around the human health impact of oxybenzone levels in the blood and its impact on pregnancy: Research indicates that pregnant women with higher oxybenzone exposure have shorter pregnancies when carrying male babies, and the chemical may impact birth weight.

An Alternative to Chemical Sunscreens

Again, protecting yourself from the sun’s damaging UV rays by using sunscreen remains critically important.

If you’re concerned about chemicals in sunscreen and their possible side effects, consider switching to a mineral sunscreen. While chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin and absorb the sun’s rays, physical sunscreens contain minerals—usually zinc oxide or titanium dioxide–that stay on top of the skin and act as a physical block to prevent ultraviolet rays from reaching your skin.

Mineral sunscreens are “generally recognized as safe” and provide an effective alternative to chemical sunscreens.

In our next post, we’ll explore mineral sunscreens and additional chemical-free alternatives to sun protection.