Toxic sunscreen or skin cancer?
Alternative blockers use natural ingredients to keep skin safe
If you’ve been using sunscreen to protect your skin, here’s a new worry for you: The sunscreen might hurt you, too. The Food and Drug Administration has asked for additional testing of popular sunscreens to learn whether some of the main chemicals in them can seep into the bloodstream at levels high enough to be toxic.
A small study found that high levels of common sunscreen ingredients can enter a person’s bloodstream after just one day of use. The four chemicals tested — avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule and octocrylene — remained in the bloodstream for at least 24 hours after the last sunscreen application, and some showed up even after a week.
The FDA now wants a larger study done that would look at 12 active sunscreen ingredients, the level at they are absorbed into the body, and what the health effects might be. Your conventional sunscreen may be a problem if it has multiple chemical ingredients typical in brands that
spread easy or spray on like Coppertone, Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic.
But don’t worry, South Florida. You have options. The better choice for now is sunscreens, known as blockers, that contain only mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
“The FDA says we need to know more about the safety of chemical sunscreens, but no one is saying we shouldn’t use sunscreens,” cautions Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, acting medical director of the American Cancer Society.
An ‘epidemic’ of skin cancer
New questions about sunscreen safety come as South Florida dermatologists say they are inundated with patients with skin cancers, much of it in people who had sun exposure for decades without any sun protection.
“We are facing and fighting a skin cancer epidemic,” said Jeffrey S. Fromowitz, a dermatologist in Boca Raton. “This could lead people to the conclusion to stop wearing sunscreen, but until we know more, what we know for certain is there is a correlation between sun exposure and skin cancer.”
Florida has a higher incidence of skin cancer than any other state, and the Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that more than 8,300 Floridians will be diagnosed this year with melanoma, one of the most dangerous forms of skin cancer.
Fromowitz said local dermatologists have spent recent decades trying to change people’s behaviors to make sun protection part of daily routines. “We’ve seen the results of not wearing it in our daily practices,” he said. “Every day we are treating people with the effects of decades of UV exposure.”
In recent years formulation advances have led to more sunscreens made with active chemical ingredients in higher concentrations touting water-resistance and high levels of sun protection. As these products hit the shelves, the FDA relied on manufacturers of chemical sunscreens to do their own safety testing.
The FDA says when manufacturers failed to do their own tests, it conducted its own safety study. The pilot study included 24 individuals who used sprays, lotions and cream sunscreen formulas and reapplied four times a day for four days. The results found all of the active ingredients in the sunscreens were absorbed in levels higher than 0.5 ml, the toxicity the FDA considers safe before further study is needed.
The FDA says it is not clear whether the higher levels increase the risk for cancer and birth defects or have other adverse effects. In previous studies, the chemical in sunscreens — oxybenzone — has been linked to birth defects during the first trimester of pregnancy as well as hormone changes in men. Now, the FDA is asking the manufacturers for a more comprehensive study of chemical absorption to understand the risks and benefits.
Independently, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, did its own sunscreen tests. The organization’s 2019 Guide to Sunscreens, set to be released May 22, has found that more then 60 percent of the 1,300 sunscreens it tested did not offer adequate sun protection or contained potentially harmful chemicals.
Fortunately, sunscreens made with mineral ingredients are being improved upon and sitting on the shelf next to chemical filled choices. Big brands such as Neutrogena, Aveeno and Sun Bum have developed mineral based products. A concern has been that these mineral sunscreens may sometimes be less effective than their chemical counterparts because they can be easier to rub off. They also have been known to leave a whiteish cast on the skin.
Hollywood dermatologist Todd Minars said dermatologists always have preferred these mineral sunscreens for their broad spectrum coverage. Originally, their pasty consistency turned off wearers and led to the introduction of chemical sunscreens. But that has changed, he said. “New formulas of physical sunscreens are pretty invisible and go on nicely,” he said. Minars said that with daily sun exposure, most people will have one or two less invasive skin cancers by the time they reach 80, which is why daily sunscreen use is critical in Florida.
Fromowitz agrees and says that until more research is completed, these mineral sunscreens are a good option — along with donning a wide-rim hat, sunglasses, wearing sunprotective clothing and staying indoors during peak sun hours.
“Be aware of the questions raised, but you should not abandon sunscreen,” said Dr. Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society. “The risk of burning and tanning is substantial and can be cumulative over time.”
Top: Mark and Teri Sokol from upstate New York bask in the sun Wednesday next to the pier on Deerfield Beach. The couple said they apply sunscreen to try and protect themselves from the sun, but it doesn’t always work. Above: Sharon Doyle puts sunscreen on the face of 9-year-old Savannah Stidham as they visit the beach in Fort Lauderdale.