New Study Raises Safety Concerns About Sunscreens

FDA researchers find that some sunscreen ingredients are absorbed by the body. Here’s what that means for you.

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child with sunscreen Brandon Tabiolo

A new study by researchers at the Food and Drug Administration shows that six commonly used chemicals in sunscreen, including avobenzone and oxybenzone, are absorbed into the bloodstream at levels that should trigger testing for possible health effects. The study, published today in JAMA, reinforces concerns about the safety of these ingredients.

“The FDA has called for more testing of chemical active ingredients in sunscreen,” says Don Huber, director of product safety at Consumer Reports. Determining whether and to what extent these ingredients get into the body was one of the first steps. “This study supports the need for that testing,” Huber says.

But the results, Huber says, don’t prove that these ingredients are harmful, and researchers stress that they don’t mean people should stop using sunscreen. “The fact that an ingredient is absorbed through the skin and into the body does not mean the ingredient is unsafe,” says Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

What the Study Found

This study was a follow-up to a pilot study published last year by the same FDA researchers, which found that four commonly used sunscreen ingredients were absorbed into the blood at high levels.

More on Sunscreen

In the new study, the researchers looked at the absorption rates of six ingredients, three of which they tested last year (avobenzone, octocrylene, and oxybenzone) and three others (homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate). On the first day of the study, the researchers applied sunscreen once to 75 percent of the volunteers’ bodies—about the amount you’d use if you were in a bathing suit. For the next three days, they applied that amount four times a day, similar to the way you’d reapply sunscreen if you were at the beach for the day. Then they took blood samples to check levels of the ingredients over a 21-day period.

All six ingredients were absorbed at levels above the FDA’s threshold after just one application, and increased when sunscreen was used several times a day. The levels remained high even after sunscreen use was stopped.

“The first [FDA] study was simply to find out if there might be a problem: The answer was yes,” says Robert M. Califf, M.D., former FDA commissioner and the Donald F. Fortin, M.D., distinguished professor of cardiology at Duke University’s school of medicine in Durham, N.C. “The second study provides details on the duration and dynamics of absorption of these chemicals over time. The answer is that the levels of absorption are high enough that more research is needed.”

How Chemical Sunscreens Work

Sunscreens with chemical active ingredients, such as the ones tested in this study, protect against sunburn and skin cancer because of the way they’re absorbed into the skin. When that happens, they convert ultraviolet light from the sun into heat. The end result: The heat is released and the UV rays don’t penetrate your skin.

By contrast, when a sunscreen contains minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, these active ingredients sit on the skin surface, where they deflect UV rays. Because they aren’t absorbed through the skin, the FDA says they don’t need further safety testing.

Many dermatologists recommend that people who are concerned about chemical sunscreens can use mineral ones instead. “However, in Consumer Reports’ sunscreen tests, we haven’t found a mineral sunscreen that performed well enough for us to recommend it,” says CR’s Huber. “These products have often failed to provide adequate protection against UV rays, and they have not always met the SPF on the label in our tests.” Some did better than others, though, and if you want to use a mineral sunscreen, CR’s experts suggest trying the ones below.

How to Protect Yourself From the Sun

Henry W. Lim, M.D., a dermatologist at The Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, says that sunscreens with these chemical ingredients have been used since the late 1970s. “All those years, and there have not been any known reported systemic side effects,” he says, such as cancer or other health harms. “There may be allergic reactions, but nothing systemic.”

It’s a point echoed by the sunscreen industry. The study findings are “consistent with the excellent safety record associated with sunscreen active ingredients over decades of real-world use,” according to a joint statement from the Personal Care Products Council and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

However, animal studies suggest that one chemical ingredient, oxybenzone, may interfere with the normal functioning of hormones in the body. The American Academy of Pediatrics says it is concerned about all chemical ingredients in personal care products, including sunscreen. The AAP advises parents to not use sunscreens that contain oxybenzone on children.

CR’s Huber says that it’s crucial to use sunscreen to protect exposed skin when you’re in the sun but that sunscreen was never meant to be your only defense against the sun’s rays. “It’s important to take other steps, like wearing long sleeves and a hat,” he says. “Not only will you be better protected, but doing so means you don’t need sunscreen on the parts you’ve covered up.”

Best Mineral Sunscreens From CR's Tests

Mineral sunscreens have consistently not performed well enough in CR’s tests to receive a recommended designation from CR. However, while the two below don’t provide as much protection as the top-rated products, they offer some protection.

Trisha Calvo

I've covered health and nutrition my entire career, so I know how to separate science from hype. Whether it's about food labels, sunscreen, or food safety, my goal is to deliver information that makes following a healthy lifestyle easier. Healthy cooking is a favorite hobby, and friends think I'm crazy, but I can happily spend hours grocery shopping. Follow me on Twitter. (@TrishaCalvo)