It’s long been known that the chemicals in sunscreen penetrate into the blood, but a new study conducted by the FDA found that it’s way more than previously thought.
The study, published in the medical journal JAMA earlier this week, tested four different sunscreen formulations. To conduct the study, 24 healthy adults volunteered to have the recommended amount of sunscreen applied to their skin four times a day for four days. The conclusion? The amount of the active sunscreen ingredients absorbed within one day of application systemically exceeded the FDA’s threshold for chemicals that don’t require further non-toxicology studies. This sounds a little unnerving, for sure, but there’s no need to panic, and more importantly, it’s not an excuse to skip on sunscreen.
“The study found what was already known, that there is a very small amount of sunscreen agents that are absorbed into the bloodstream,” says Darrell Rigel, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. “However, tens of millions of people have used these products for many years and without any of the hypothetical problems suggested occurring.” (FYI, the most often discussed potential risk is hormone disruption.)
More importantly, these were chemical sunscreens, specifically. As a quick reminder, sunscreen formulas fall into one of two camps: There are chemical ones, which use ingredients such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule, and octocrylene (these were also the ones studied). They work by penetrating into the skin and creating a reaction that prevents UV rays from damaging the cells. On the other side of the spectrum are mineral (or physical) sunscreens. These use ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which sit on top of your skin and physically deflect the sun’s rays.
While both types have their own set of pros and cons — chemical options tend to be more cosmetically elegant while mineral formulas are better for sensitive or acne-prone skin — chemical sunscreens have been under fire a lot lately. The FDA also recently questioned their efficacy, as part of a larger proposed overhaul of the sunscreen industry. The results of that study showed that only two sunscreen ingredients — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, aka the mineral options — were effective. It was determined that twelve other chemical ingredients still need further testing.
Point being, mineral sunscreens may be the best way to go until we know more. “This study was disconcerting to me, and I do prefer mineral-based sunscreens,” notes Rita Linkner, MD, of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City. But that being said, it’s the sun that is the real problem here. “The sun is the true enemy,” Dr. Linkner emphasizes. “Skin cancer is the most common cancer, and melanoma is one of the biggest killers, especially in young people.”
“If you prefer chemical sunscreen for whatever reason, it’s far better that you continue using that then using no sunscreen at all,” Dr. Linkner says. And Dr. Rigel agrees: “Skin cancer is a real risk. Sunscreen lowers that risk, and the best one is the one that you’re actually going to use.” Above all else, whether you’re going chemical or mineral, the best way to practice sun safety is to opt for a product that’s broad-spectrum (meaning it protects from both UVA and UVB rays), with at least an SPF 30, and to use it daily, 365 days per year. Do that and you’ll be good to go.
Still, if you’re concerned by these new findings, the good news is that there are plenty of mineral formulations out there that are more cosmetically elegant and enjoyable to use than ever before. Not to mention that some of the mineral ingredients have the added benefit of also shielding your skin from blue light; new studies show that this light, which is emitted by all of our electronics, may be just as problematic for your skin as UV exposure.