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Sunscreen Gets Under Your Skin | Is It Safe?

A new study shows that a common sunscreen ingredient, oxybenzone, is readily absorbed through the skin into the body. Should you worry?
Child kid sun sunburn beach vacation

For decades, dermatologists have encouraged us to slather on the sunscreen before we expose our skin to the sun’s rays. The goal is to prevent premature aging and, more importantly, to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

How much of your sunscreen is absorbed into your body? You might think that question would have been answered decades ago. Surprisingly, we are just learning how much sunscreen passes through your skin and gets into your blood stream. A new study published in JAMA (May 6, 2019) reveals that all four of the ingredients tested resulted in systemic absorption. One in particular, oxybenzone, far exceeded the 0.5 ng/mL level that should trigger toxicological studies.

Everyone LOVES Sunscreen:

Americans are not always good about following public health pronouncements. They are pretty lax about cutting back on salt, washing hands after going to the bathroom or eating lots of vegetables daily. What people ARE good at is slathering on the sunscreen.

Sunscreens produce detectable benefits. You may not see immediate results from eating vegetables or lowering blood pressure, but you know within a few hours the consequences of spending hours in bright sunlight without sunscreen.

A bad sunburn hurts and looks awful. As a result, people are rewarded for regular sunscreen use. Add to that the constant reminders from dermatologists to always use sunscreen. The messages work! Americans spend over $650 million on sunscreen products each year.

Sunscreen Absorption Into Your Body:

Many Americans assume that what they put on their skin stays on their skin. The idea that the chemicals in skin care products penetrate the skin and get into the body seems foreign. But the skin is not an impenetrable barrier. It is truly astonishing that until now, very little research has been conducted on sunscreen absorption.

The FDA has recognized this lapse. In 2018, the agency told the sunscreen industry that it is time to find out whether sunscreen ingredients are absorbed (Guidance for Industry: Nonprescription Sunscreen Drug Products Safety and Effectiveness Data). FDA scientists took the first step with the current study.

How They Did the Study:

The researchers recruited 24 individuals as their study participants and divided them into four groups. Following proper sunscreen application procedures, each volunteer got sunscreen on 75 percent of their skin multiple times a day, just as if they were spending a vacation at the beach. (It was less fun, though, as they were not actually at the beach and did not leave the clinical facility to go out in the sunshine. Instead, they had blood drawn at regular intervals.)

The investigators used two different sunscreen sprays, one lotion and one cream. Each group of volunteers used the same type of sunscreen for the full week of the study.

When the scientists analyzed the blood samples, they found that sunscreen ingredients were detected in the volunteers’ blood within a relatively short time. They wanted to know about avobenzone, which is a primary sunscreen ingredient. Until now, no one knew whether or to what extent avobenzone might be absorbed through the skin. In addition, the investigators considered levels of oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule.

Oxybenzone:

Oxybenzone has been controversial for years. It is a common ingredient in many sunscreens. According to EWG (the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization), this is among the most worrisome sunscreen ingredients: “Oxybenzone can cause allergic skin reactions (Rodriguez 2006). In laboratory studies it is a weak estrogen and has potent anti-androgenic effects (Krause 2012, Ghazipura 2017)” (https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/)

What does “potent anti-androgenic effects” mean? Androgens are often called male hormones, but that is a misnomer. Men and women make testosterone. This critical hormone is essential for good health. The idea that a sunscreen ingredient can affect both estrogen AND testosterone is quite disconcerting, especially for young children.

EWG analysts note that:

“In a recent evaluation of CDC-collected exposure data for American children, researchers found that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone measurements had significantly lower total testosterone levels (Scinicariello 2016).”

“Given the pervasiveness of oxybenzone exposures, further study is needed to evaluate the association between oxybenzone and hormone disruption in children and adults.”

How much oxybenzone is absorbed through the skin? In the new JAMA study, the researchers found significant absorption of oxybenzone. Within two or three days, participants exposed to oxybenzone-containing sunscreens had levels nearing 200 ng/ml in their bloodstreams. A week later, blood levels were still between 20 and 35 ng/ml, on average.

In contrast, the highest concentration of avobenzone was 4.3 ng/ml, and it took much longer to reach that level. For octocrylene, maximum concentration was 7.8 ng/ml. And for the one sunscreen containing ecamsule, blood levels reached just 1.5 ng/ml with no residual concentration after a week.

Oxybenzone and Coral Reefs:

The state of Hawaii banned both oxybenzone and octinoxate last summer.

The legislation stated that these chemicals:

“have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment and residing ecosystems.” 

The Governor of Hawaii stated (Washington Post, July 6, 2018):

“Studies have documented the negative impact of these chemicals on corals and other marine life. Our natural environment is fragile, and our own interaction with the earth can have lasting impacts. This new law is just one step toward protecting the health and resiliency of Hawaii’s coral reefs.”

What Should We Learn About Sunscreen Absorption?

The scientists conducting this study do not consider it the last word on sunscreen ingredient absorption. They present it as proof that such studies are feasible, however. The FDA may encourage manufacturers to carry out similar studies to demonstrate whether their sunscreen products are absorbed into the body. If they are, toxicity studies should be carried out. Do you not find it astonishing that this kind of research has not already been done?

Editorial in JAMA Interpreting the Results:

In the Same issue of JAMA there is an editorial by Robert Califf, MD, former FDA Commissioner and Kanade Shinkai, MD, PhD, Editor in Chief, JAMA Dermatology. These two heavy hitters note that there was evidence sunscreens were absorbed systemically over 20 years ago and that research reported:

“the presence of the common sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone in 97% of urine samples collected as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.”

They go on to add:

“The demonstration of systemic absorption well above the FDA guideline does not mean these ingredients are unsafe. However, the study findings raise many important questions about sunscreen and the process by which the sunscreen industry, clinicians, specialty organizations, and regulatory agencies evaluate the benefits and risks of this topical OTC medication. First and foremost, it is essential to determine whether systemic absorption of sunscreen poses risks to human health.”

We find it astonishing that after all these years there are so many unanswered questions. These two authorities add:

“At a minimum, physicians should recommend use of sunscreen formulations containing GRASE [generally recognized as safe and effective] ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as part of a larger program of photoprotection that includes seeking shade, and wearing protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses, until meaningful answers to these questions are available.”

The authors of the research in JAMA note, the mineral ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are considered safe and effective. Manufacturers using other sunscreen ingredients (chemical filters such as avobenzone or oxybenzone) will be expected to produce absorption data. Learn more about zinc oxide at this link:

Share your thoughts about the latest research on sunscreen absorption in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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I just read an article from ConsumerLab, and titanium dioxide was shown to increase inflammatory disease and colorectal cancer in mice. It looks like there needs to be tests by scientists and the sunscreen makers to see how much is absorbed and what percentage will affect humans negatively.

The titanium dioxide in that study was consumed, not applied topically. We still need more research on its safety in sunscreen.

About 15 years ago my husband and I spent 10 days in Hawaii on vacation. We used sunscreen liberally every day to prevent sunburn. After a week of doing this consistently we were both totally exhausted and felt sick. My husband couldn’t even drive he was that wiped out. He went to bed late in the afternoon and slept for many hours. We concluded that we had a form of ‘sunscreen poisoning’ from the chemicals being absorbed into our bodies. I’ve been leery of using sunscreen ever since because our bodies told us something that day.

I use sunscreen very sparingly because I just don’t like how it feels on my skin! And it also seems to make my skin, especially face, look kind of ashen and wan.

I love the sun and being outdoors. But I do fear sun damage. Who needs wrinkles and crepey skin?! So I do use those “sunless tanning” products and am very happy with the “natural tan” look they give my legs.

However I’m very afraid that the chemicals in those “sunless tanning” products are even worse than sunscreens as far as putting chemicals into the body. Has anyone ever done a study on THOSE? If so, I’d be very interested to hear about it.

Just several weeks ago I was speaking with a woman that works on a catamaran, taking tourists out on the water, and she shared this same information with me. She said that they tell everyone that is going on the water with them to NOT wear chemical sunscreen and that they have a huge tub of both coconut oil and olive oil available for use. I asked if that wouldn’t increase the sun’s damage on skin and she said that either oil applied to the skin keeps you from burning and they are both nourishing to the skin and they don’t harm marine life. It still doesn’t sound right to me, but she has been on the water for a long time and insisted that it’s correct.

I was born and raised in Hawaii and never used sunscreens – in the ’60s some Moms put zinc oxide on their children’s noses. I am 62 and today my dermatologist regularly “burns” off small patches of pre-cancer on my face but it took 40 years for it to appear. I still rarely use sunblock.

I play golf. Four hours out in the sun four days a week. My sunscreen has 6% oxybenzone. Broadbrim hats are not an option. I have to wear sunscreen. Give a list of safe ones.

I agree with James in Colorado – the best sunscreen is shade.

I live in coastal Texas and always wear long sleeves and a broad-brimmed hat when I know I’ll be out in the sun for more than a few minutes. Putting sunscreen on my hands, face, and neck is part of my morning ritual during the summertime.

Have the chemicals in other cosmetics been studied as closely as the ingredients in sunscreens?

Also, have nanoparticle zinc and titanium oxides been studied in the same way? The older, powdered products cannot penetrate the skin because they are too large, but nanoparticles are extremely small, generally 25 to 100+ times as small as the powders used in older sunscreens.

I so appreciate this information. To see this research in JAMA means it may actually filter down through our medical practitioners. I’ve been using “healthfood store” sun protection products that don’t contain oxybensone for years with success.

It adds chemicals to the bloodstream; it prevents the natural production of vitamin d; it pollutes the environment, and there are other options to take. This is not a tough choice.

Mike in NYC: The article says that until the matter is studied more it suggests using sunscreens with GRASE ingredients (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide), seeking shade and wearing protective clothing, hats, etc. ? People’s Pharmacy graciously provides health information to us. I do not expect them to conduct studies on their own.

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