logoThe People's Perspective on Medicine

How Can You Choose A Safe Sunscreen?

Most people assume they are using a safe sunscreen, The FDA lacks safety data. Do YOUR eyes glaze over when you read chemical ingredients?
How Can You Choose A Safe Sunscreen?
Daughter and mother in beach with sunscreen in bikini

After more than a year of pandemic isolation, Americans are ready to have fun again. Now that many people are vaccinated, vacation rentals at beaches, lakes or in the mountains are going fast. If you are preparing to venture out after a year of seclusion, you will need sunscreen. What should you choose?

Most people assume that it should be easy to select a safe sunscreen. After all, the FDA classifies sunscreens as drugs. That’s because there is an implied health benefit. The FDA states

“Any sunscreen sold in the United States is regulated as a drug because it makes a drug claim – to help prevent sunburn or to decrease the risks of skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun.”

In addition, the agency states unequivocally that:

“FDA regulates sunscreens to ensure they meet safety and effectiveness standards.”

That seems reassuring, but is it an illusion? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has evaluated sunscreens independently for the past 15 years. Alarmingly, the report this year suggests that most of the sunscreen products available either did not provide good protection from sun damage or contained potentially harmful compounds. It warns:

“Consumers should be wary of SPF value claims, especially SPF numbers over 50+, and should not use sunscreen to prolong their time in the sun.”

What’s in Your Sunscreen?

Most people never bother to look at the ingredients on the label. And even when they do, those long chemical names are confusing.

In addition, consumers often take topical skin care products for granted. Perhaps it seems as if they just sit on top of the skin providing protection against sunburn. Until recently we didn’t even know whether ingredients in sunscreens were absorbed into the body!

In fact, however, several sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed through the skin. How can you choose a safe sunscreen given FDA’s surprising lack of oversight of these “drugs.”

Finding a Safe Sunscreen Is Challenging:

Tens of millions of people have been slathering on sunscreen for decades. That’s largely because dermatologists have repeatedly told us that any sun exposure will cause wrinkling and premature aging.

They also point out that ultraviolet radiation causes skin cancer. People who spend a lot of time outdoors without protection are more likely to get both squamous and basal cell skin cancers. They are also more vulnerable to far more serious melanomas.

Almost everyone believes that the FDA has been scrutinizing sunscreens for safety. But two FDA-sponsored studies published in JAMA within the last year reveal some startling data about selecting a safe sunscreen.

FDA’s Embarrassing Findings:

What the investigators found was that ingredients in sunscreens are absorbed through the skin and get into the body. The FDA study evaluated six compounds, including avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate. Many commercial sunscreens contain at least one of these ingredients.

Why don’t you stop reading this article and dig out your sunscreen and check to see whether any of those chemicals are in your sunscreens. You may be surprised. 

Most people assume that the FDA has tested such products carefully to make sure that they are safe, especially for small children. But the FDA did not even know whether the compounds could get through the skin and enter the circulation until completing these studies.

Catching the FDA In A Lie:

Think about that last statement for more than a second or two. We have assumed for decades that what we put on our skin stays on our skin. Most people imagine that their skin is a great barrier to creams, lotions and cosmetics of all sorts.

The research published in JAMA (May 6, 2019)  and JAMA (Jan. 21, 2020)  proves that is not the case when it comes to sunscreens. We now know that ingredients in sunscreens get under your skin.

The investigators discovered that these compounds penetrate the skin and build up in the blood stream. Since some are suspected of being hormone disruptors, this finding is disturbing. According to the EWG report, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety has issued preliminary findings that oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) and homosalate are not safe at the current concentrations permitted in sunscreen.

Why worry about homosalate or oxybenzone? Scientific evidence suggests that these compounds may act like estrogen and could disrupt hormonal balance. The FDA has called for research into the safety and effectiveness of the ingredients in many sunscreens. We have yet to see the results of such studies, though.

You can learn more about the studies and what was uncovered at this link:

JAMA Study Proves Sunscreens ARE Absorbed into Bloodstream
A second FDA-sponsored study reveals that many popular sunscreens are absorbed through the skin and get into the circulation. How worrisome is this finding?

How Would You Know If You Have a Safe Sunscreen?

The FDA still has very little information about sunscreen safety. It has not required manufacturers to investigate whether these sunscreen ingredients have deleterious effects. Some experts worry that they could disrupt hormone balance, especially for pregnant women or young children.

Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the FDA, had this to say about the finding that ingredients are absorbed:

“…this finding calls for further industry testing to determine the safety and effect of systemic exposure of sunscreen ingredients, especially with chronic use.”

“…the FDA requested additional information on active ingredients in sunscreen to evaluate their GRASE (Generally Recognized As Safe and Effective) status in light of changed conditions, including substantially increased sunscreen usage and evolving information about the potential risks associated with these products since they were originally evaluated. We look to sharing further updates on this important area of research.”

Let’s analyze these statements in a bit more detail.

1) The FDA did not realize the ingredients in sunscreen were absorbed in significant levels until these new studies were completed.

2) Because the FDA did not realize how much sunscreen was absorbed into the body it had not required safety studies.

3) Now, after decades of use by tens of millions of people, the FDA is requiring companies to perform safety studies.

4) How long will it take to learn if the chemicals used in sunscreens are safe? That’s anyone’s guess. When it comes to the FDA and safety concerns our crystal ball is quite cloudy.

Readers Want Safe Sunscreen!

Some readers are alarmed about the FDA studies. One wrote:

“I am very concerned about this matter. I have discovered that in the past there are some sunscreens that I can ‘taste’ after a while. When I mentioned this to my dermatologist, she was surprised.

“That gave me reason to wonder if I need a new dermatologist. It seemed logical to me. I thought maybe I absorb the ingredients through the palms of my hands. Since that time, I use only products labeled for babies, usually with zinc oxide.”

Another reader added this:

“I use only products containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. If I apply products with other ingredients to my face, my eyes will be irritated for hours afterward.”

How Can You Find A Safe Sunscreen?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has been evaluating sunscreens for years. This nonprofit organization agrees that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only two sunscreen ingredients that have good safety data.

According to EWG:

“For 12 other ingredients, the FDA has said there isn’t enough data to determine whether they’re safe. In particular, FDA raised concerns about the substantial skin absorption of oxybenzone, its potential to affect hormone levels and the increased absorption susceptibility of children.”

We worry that some of the ingredients found in common sunscreens could impact thyroid hormone function. We are also concerned about hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. The EWG report goes into some detail about these issues. It is worth reading! 

So, How Can You Pick A Safe Sunscreen?

What does all this mean for your skin this summer? Most people hate trying to decipher the long chemical names in tiny print on the label of their favorite sunscreen. But unless it is titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, you might want to think twice about buying the product for young children. The Food and Drug Administration classifies these two ingredients as safe and effective. They physically block ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Some people have expressed concern about the nanoparticles of zinc and titanium. If you are old enough you will likely remember the white noses of lifeguards at the beach or swimming pool. That’s because they were using zinc oxide cream. It makes people look a little ghostlike.

In recent years, though, the manufacturers have created tiny particles of these mineral so they are less likely to make you look white. Here is what EWG has to say about nanoparticles:

“Mineral sunscreens are made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, usually in the form of nanoparticles. Evidence suggests that few if any zinc or titanium particles penetrate the skin to reach living tissues. So mineral sunscreens tend to rate better than chemical sunscreens in the EWG sunscreen database.”

EWG goes on to suggest that sunscreen manufacturers should coat the nanoparticles with inert chemicals to “reduce photoactivity.”

One final word. We discourage use of aerosol sprays. Inhaling either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide is not good for the lungs. In fact, we would discourage use of sunscreen sprays in general. Yes, we know they are convenient. But breathing in a fine mist of sunscreen chemicals is not a great way to enjoy the great outdoors.That’s because it is hard not to breathe the mist. We do not want people inhaling sunscreen ingredients into their lungs.

Some products that score well on the EWG list of sunscreens include 365 Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Badger Sunscreen Cream, California Baby Sunscreen Stick, Rocket Pure Natural Sunscreen and 3rd Rock Sunblock. There are many more products on the EWG website, so if you would like to check out your favorite sunscreen, just go to that link for more options to locate a safe sunscreen. 

Final Words:

Until we have more safety studies on sunscreen ingredients, people may wish to rely more heavily on old-fashioned ways to avoid sunburn: staying out of the sun in the middle of the day, seeking shade and wearing protective clothing, including hats and sunglasses.

By the way, have you ever wondered whether sunscreen prevents skin cancer? We all take it for granted that sunscreen is highly effective. When we started searching for evidence, we were surprised with what we discovered. We also aggravated a lot of dermatologists. You may find this article of interest:

Does Sunscreen Prevent Skin Cancer? Dermatologist Is Irate!
If you visit a dermatologist the chances are good that you will be reminded to slather on the sunscreen. But is there a good answer to the question: Does sunscreen prevent skin cancer?

What Do You Think:

Please share your thoughts about safe sunscreen in the comment section below. How do you prevent a sunburn? Do you look at the ingredients on your sunscreen? Are you concerned about things like chemical absorption and safety? How do you feel about mineral sunscreens like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide?

If you found this article of interest, please share it with friends and family by scrolling to the top of the article and clicking on the icons for email, Twitter or Facebook.

Rate this article
star-fullstar-emptystar-fullstar-emptystar-fullstar-emptystar-fullstar-emptystar-fullstar-emptystar-fullstar-emptystar-fullstar-emptystar-fullstar-emptystar-fullstar-emptystar-fullstar-empty
4.5- 46 ratings
About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
Citations
  • Matta, M. K., et al, "Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial," JAMA, Jan. 21, 2020, doi: 10.1001/jama.2019.20747
Join over 150,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

We're empowering you to make wise decisions about your own health, by providing you with essential health information about both medical and alternative treatment options.