The Washington Post

Q&A on chemicals in your sunscreen


News stories have recently raised alarms about sunscreens. Last summer, several spray sunscreens were recalled after benzene, a known carcinogen, was detected in them. Other research has shown that some sunscreen ingredient­s can seep through skin into your bloodstrea­m, and the Food and Drug Administra­tion has asked manufactur­ers for more data on their safety. And Hawaii has banned certain ingredient­s because of concerns that they may harm ocean reefs.

With all that, you may be asking yourself whether sunscreen is still worth it.

The short answer: Absolutely. While those issues raise real concerns, at this point the risks are more theoretica­l than proved. Regular sunscreen use, on the other hand, clearly prevents skin cancers and saves lives. Some research suggests that it can lower the risk of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, by about 50 percent.

In addition, there are smart choices you can make to ensure that the sunscreens you choose for yourself and your family are safe and effective, and maybe better for the environmen­t.

To help in that effort, Consumer Reports tests dozens of sunscreens, identifyin­g those that work best and those that don’t protect you as well. We’ve also tested every spray sunscreen in our ratings for benzene: All were free of the harmful chemical. We also delved into the research and talked with experts to understand the potential health and environmen­tal health risks posed by some sunscreen ingredient­s. Here are answers to some important questions.

Are some of them safer?

Recent research has led to some concerns about chemical sunscreens — those that use one or more of a dozen chemical ingredient­s approved for use in the United States to filter the sun’s damaging ultraviole­t rays.

In 2019, the FDA announced that it wanted more informatio­n on the safety of those ingredient­s, including whether they are absorbed systemical­ly — through the skin into the bloodstrea­m. That’s in part because Americans are now using a lot more sunscreen than in the past, and because today’s products contain more combinatio­ns and higher concentrat­ions of the ingredient­s.

Soon after, FDA scientists published studies showing that six common chemical ingredient­s — avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylen­e and oxybenzone — do indeed get into the bloodstrea­m.

The FDA stresses that absorption doesn’t mean these ingredient­s are unsafe. But the amounts absorbed were higher than the levels the FDA says would exempt them from safety testing, so more research is needed.

“The key question is whether that systemic absorption actually causes harm,” says Kathleen Suozzi, assistant professor of dermatolog­y at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

Definitive answers may be years away. “Generating the type of informatio­n the FDA desires is tough, time-consuming and very expensive,” says Mark Chandler, president of ACT Solutions, which consults with sunscreen and other cosmetic manufactur­ers on product formulatio­n.

Avoid chemical sunscreens?

The FDA, the American Academy of Dermatolog­y and independen­t researcher­s say there is no need for people to stop using chemical sunscreens.

“These UV filters have been used for years by millions of people, and there have not been noticeable systemic effects,” says Henry W. Lim, a leading sunscreen researcher and former chair of the department of dermatolog­y at Henry Ford Health in Michigan, who has also consulted with sunscreen-makers. “I still feel very comfortabl­e saying these are a safe way to prevent skin cancer and other damage from the sun.”

But some of those chemicals may be more worrisome than others. “Oxybenzone and, to a lesser extent, octinoxate have emerged as the biggest concerns,” Lim says.

That’s primarily because preliminar­y research in animals suggests that oxybenzone might interfere with hormone production, which theoretica­lly could affect fertility, puberty and thyroid function. But sunscreen research that has been done in humans hasn’t raised any major concerns. For example, although a 2020 review of 29 studies that looked at the health effects of oxybenzone and octinoxate said more research was needed, it also did not identify clear links to any health problems.

Still, to play it safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents not use oxybenzone-containing sunscreens on children. And people of any age who want to avoid sunscreens with either of those chemicals can easily do so, because manufactur­ers are now using them less often. Few sunscreens in our ratings contain oxybenzone and none have octinoxate.

Use mineral sunscreen?

It’s true that sunscreens with the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide — which work by creating a physical barrier on your skin — aren’t absorbed into the skin and don’t make their way into the bloodstrea­m.

Unfortunat­ely, those mineral sunscreens might not be as effective as products with the most efficient chemical filters, Chandler says. All the mineral sunscreens CR has tested appear near the middle or bottom of our ratings.

One possible reason: It takes a lot of titanium or zinc to create a product with a high SPF, Chandler says, and it’s difficult to do that without making the sunscreen thick, gloppy and hard to rub in. In addition, the minerals sometimes clump up in the product, so they don’t get evenly dispersed on skin, leaving potential gaps in protection.

Try ‘reef safe’ products?

Some research suggests that oxybenzone and octinoxate may threaten coral in ocean reefs and harm other marine life. So far, that connection has primarily been studied at high doses and in the lab, not in the real world. And in research looking at sunscreen chemicals in ocean water, the amounts detected, even at popular beaches, are far below the levels linked to damage in lab studies.

Still, the potential concern has prompted Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and some other locations to ban sunscreens with either ingredient. And some sunscreen manufactur­ers now label their products as “reef safe.” In most cases, the term is used when a product doesn’t have either oxybenzone or octinoxate. But the FDA does not regulate the term, so it has no defined meaning.

So if you want a product without oxybenzone or octinoxate, your best bet is to check the ingredient­s list.

Are sprays or lotions better?

Used correctly, both can do a good job.

But sprays can be tricky to apply. “The droplets can disperse into the air, making it easy to miss areas on your skin,” Lim says. To avoid that, spray sunscreen onto the palm of your hand and then rub it in. Next best is to hold the nozzle just an inch from your skin, spray until you can see a film on your skin and then rub it in.

Also take care to make sure you don’t inhale the spray, because the ingredient­s may irritate or even harm your lungs. (For that reason, CR’S experts say it’s best not to use sprays on kids.) Spraying it into your hand also helps prevent inhalation. Never spray directly into your face, and be careful using sprays when it’s windy. The spray can blow into your face and mouth, or disperse and not adequately cover your skin.

Is covering up good enough?

Not entirely. You still need it on exposed skin. Experts point to enormous amounts of research linking sun exposure to about 90 percent of skin cancers, and the proven effectiven­ess of sunscreens in blocking cancer-causing UV rays.

But covering up means you can use far less sunscreen. For example, if you wear a long-sleeved swim shirt or rash guard instead of a traditiona­l bathing suit, you won’t need to apply sunscreen to your arms, back and chest. That can reduce the amount of sunscreen that you need to use on your body and that might get into your skin or into the ocean.

Dermatolog­ists say sunscreen should never be your only defense against UV rays. Try to avoid the sun at its strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. And when you are outside, especially during those hours, cover up, wear a broadbrimm­ed hat and seek shade when possible.

Are safer ones coming?

Concerns about sunscreen ingredient­s being absorbed through skin and into the bloodstrea­m have prompted some researcher­s to look for alternativ­es, says Christophe­r Bunick, associate professor of dermatolog­y at the Yale School of Medicine.

Researcher­s there are exploring formulas that encapsulat­e chemical sunscreen ingredient­s, which would keep them on top of the skin and provide protection without being absorbed.

It’s also possible that some of the sunscreen ingredient­s used in Europe and Canada will be approved for use here. A few are stuck in the FDA approval process. “So this is a glimmer of hope that we might eventually see [them] used in sunscreens in the U.S.,” Lim says.

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