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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?
JAMA Study Proves Sunscreens ARE Absorbed into Bloodstream
Young woman applying sunscreen lotion on her little child sitting on sunbed at sea beach

It’s a little early to talk about sunscreens, but a new study published in JAMA (Jan. 21, 2020)  has confirmed that ingredients in sunscreens are absorbed into the body. Last May, FDA researchers reported the results from a pilot study. It demonstrated that sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone can be absorbed through the skin. You can read our in-depth analysis of the pilot study at this link

Sunscreen Gets Under Your Skin | Is It Safe?

What’s in Your Sunscreen?

The new FDA study measured concentrations of six active ingredients in four different sunscreens. The compounds included:

  • Avobenzone
  •  Oxybenzone
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate
  • Οctinoxate

Most people do not bother to read the list of ingredients in the small print on their tube or can of sunscreen. Let’s face it, these chemicals are not household words. They can be hard to pronounce.

The majority of chemical sunscreens contain one or more of these ingredients. The average consumer has no idea what they are, how they work or whether they pose any risks. The assumption is made that the FDA would never allow such chemicals on the market unless they had been well tested and proven safe. After all, we apply such creams, gels and sprays on our children. Surely the agency charged with oversight of such products would have required extensive safety testing long ago.

Then there is the belief that the skin is a very good barrier. Even if there were questions about the safety of sunscreens, surely the skin would block absorption into the blood stream, wouldn’t it?

Sunscreens ARE Absorbed into the Skin FAST!

The study published in JAMA (Jan. 2020) set out determine whether sunscreens are absorbed into the body. The researchers recruited 48 healthy volunteers:

“Study participants were randomized by a validated database system to participate in 1 of the 4 treatment groups, which included 4 sunscreen product formulations: lotion, aerosol spray, nonaerosol spray, and pump spray.”

What did the investigators discover? Here, in their own words, are their results:

“This randomized clinical trial demonstrated systemic exposure of 6 commonly used sunscreen active ingredients when participants were administered 1 application of 4 different sunscreen formulations on day 1 and 4 applications on days 2, 3, and 4. All 6 sunscreen active ingredients tested resulted in exposure above 0.5 ng/mL, and this threshold was reached after 1 application to 75%of body surface area on day 1. This reinforces the need for additional research to determine the effect of systemic exposure of sunscreen ingredients.”

In plain English, the ingredients found in many OTC sunscreens are absorbed into the body. It’s fast. Detectable amounts were measured in the bloodstream within hours. Levels were higher than expected. And they persisted for many days after the sunscreen applications were discontinued.

How Safe Are Sunscreens?

Here’s the kicker! No one knows how safe these chemical ingredients really are. That’s because the FDA never required safety studies. We suspect that the regulators just assumed that sunscreens weren’t absorbed into the bloodstream in meaningful ways. The FDA now knows that was a faulty assumption.

An editorial in JAMA (Jan. 21, 2020) that accompanied the research article noted this about the original FDA pilot investigation:

“This study also did not provide evidence of health risks associated with sunscreen absorption. However, data from animal studies and preliminary human data have previously indicated possible health risks associated with some of the sunscreen ingredients evaluated in this study, including endocrine disruption and reproductive harm.”

These authors point out that there is a paucity of data about skin irritation, allergic reactions, or carcinogenicity risks. We have very little information about the impact of long-term sunscreen exposure on children’s health.

There is growing concern about endocrine disruptors, especially in young children. Chemicals that can affect hormone activity in the body are of particular concern to pregnant women or young children.

Where is the FDA?

Dr. Janet Woodcock is the director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. She is the FDA executive we turn to when we have drug safety questions. She has stated that

“Results from our study released today show there is evidence that some sunscreen active ingredients may be absorbed. However, the fact that an ingredient is absorbed through the skin and into the body does not mean that the ingredient is unsafe, nor does the FDA seeking further information indicate such. Rather, this finding calls for further industry testing to determine the safety and effect of systemic exposure of sunscreen ingredients, especially with chronic use.”

Are you reassured? The FDA states that just because sunscreens are absorbed into the body does not mean they are unsafe. It also does not mean that they are safe. The FDA does not know. We do not know. It will likely be years before we have any inkling of whether the chemicals in sunscreens are safe for children or adults. In the meantime, we are told to slather on the sunscreen because it will protect us from skin cancer. How clear is that evidence?

Sunscreens vs. Skin Cancer:

Here are two articles we have written on this controversial topic:

How Well Do Sunscreens Work to Prevent Skin Cancer?
If you follow your dermatologist’s recommendation, you do NOT go out in the sun without sunscreen. But how good is the evidence that sunscreens prevent skin cancer?

and

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 to Make of the New Data that Sunscreens Are Absorbed:

We suspect that the FDA was somewhat surprised by the degree of sunscreen absorption revealed in the two studies it sponsored. Of course, the latest research was released in January, not exactly prime sunscreen weather. Most people will have forgotten these findings by May or June. It will be years before we know whether this discovery deserves concern. In the meantime, if you read the two articles above about sunscreens and skin cancer you will learn about other ways to protect yourself.

Please share your thoughts regarding the latest JAMA study. Does it concern you that sunscreens are absorbed into the bloodstream? Do you want to know whether there is any risk associated with that chemical absorption. The comment section below awaits your perspective.

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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.” .
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Citations
  • Adamson, A. S. and Shinkai, K., "Systemic Absorption of Sunscreen: Balancing Benefits With Unknown Harms," JAMA, Jan. 21, 2020, DOI: 10.1001/jama.2019.20143
  • 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
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