sunscreen chemicals

Are the chemicals used in sunscreen safe?

Written by: Ayesha Khan, MBBS

In a Nutshell

  • There is insufficient evidence regarding the safety of various chemicals used in the sunscreens
  • FDA reports and latest research suggests that chemicals used in the sunscreens gets systemically absorbed in the blood stream and are even secreted in the breast milk
  • Some of these chemicals are known to exhibit hormone like activity in the body when accumulated in high doses

Sunscreens - What's inside?

The chemicals that are used in the sunscreen are not tightly standardized and regulated by FDA. There are different types of sunscreens for example:

  • Chemical sunscreens absorb the harmful rays of sun like a sponge and contain oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate as one of their active ingredients. Chemical sunscreens are readily absorbed by the skin and do not form a residue on skin.
  • Physical sunscreens form a barrier on your skin to limit the penetration of sun rays into your skin. Physical sunscreen agents contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide as their active ingredients.

Are the chemicals used in sunscreen safe?

Based on latest research, individuals who routinely use sunscreens have high levels of certain chemicals in their body such as oxybenzone and avobenzone (active ingredients of many sunscreen agents). It has been observed that over time and with regular use, these chemicals accumulate in the body and may even be secreted in body secretions such as breast milk.

These chemicals can disrupt the natural hormonal balance as chemicals like oxybenzone and avobenzone mimics hormonal activity in the body. For example:

  • According to a new study, adolescent boys who have high serum levels of oxybenzone due to regular sunscreen use were found to have lower testosterone levels.
  • High serum levels of these chemicals are associated with a higher risk of skin allergies and other ailments
  • High serum levels of oxybenzone and avobenzone were associated with reproductive issues in women (such as shorter pregnancies and weight alterations in the newborn babies) and men (low sperm count, sperm abnormalities).
  • Chemicals like Octinoxate are also readily absorbed in the body and are associated with behavioral issues and thyroid disruptions in humans.

What Should I look out for?

According to the recommendations of the American Academy of Dermatology, choose a sunscreen that:

  • Have mineral ingredients (physical sunscreens) such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that are not systemically absorbed by the body.
  • Does NOT contain chemicals like oxybenzone and avobenzone that have the capacity to get systemically absorbed and accumulated in the body
  • The Environmental Working Group provides a great resource to find specific brands and formulations
  • Is SPF-30 or higher
  • Offers protection against UVA and UVB rays (also known as broad spectrum protection)
  • Is water resistant

What is the difference between UVA and UVB sun rays?

Sun emits two types of strong and harmful radiations that can cause serious damage to skin if appropriate caution is not maintained:

  • UVA Rays are also referred to as aging sun rays and are known to damage your skin to cause premature aging characterized by age spots, appearance of fine lines, and wrinkling of skin. These rays cannot be blocked by the window glass.
  • UVB rays are also referred to as burning sun rays as they are primarily responsible for sunburns or tans. These rays can be blocked by window glass.

Both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer. Fortunately, a broad-spectrum sunscreen can block the penetration of both UVA and UVB rays in your skin.

Nuances/ Safety

Besides increasing appropriate use of sunscreen, certain lifestyle modifications are also recommended to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

  • Excessive exposure to sun or tanning beds can expose your skin to harmful UV radiations, thereby increasing the risk of skin cancer. Always use sunscreen protection when you are getting a tan from sun or tanning beds.
  • Examine your skin thoroughly at periodic intervals for any marks, lesions, redness, or growths. The prognosis of skin cancer is good if detected early in the course.
  • Sand, snow and water reflect sunlight; therefore practice extra caution when you are near such surrounding.
  • Sun is strongest between 10 am to 2 pm, which is why limit your sun exposure during these hours.

Strength of Evidence: A

The recommendations and inferences drawn in this article are based of large-scale studies and clinical trials published in peer reviewed journals.

Our Ruling:

Our Sources:

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