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Welcome to a Deep Dive into Sunscreen Safety: What You Need to Know



Hello, and welcome to our latest exploration into a topic that affects us all—sunscreen safety. Whether you’re a beach enthusiast, an outdoor adventurer, or someone who just enjoys a sunny walk, sunscreen is likely a staple in your routine. But have you ever paused to consider what happens to the sunscreen once it’s on your skin? How deeply do these chemicals penetrate, and what implications might they have for your health?


In this article, we’ll unravel the findings from recent studies on sunscreen absorption and dive into what they mean for you and your family.



What You Need to Know


When you apply sunscreen, you trust it to protect you from the sun’s harmful rays. But have you ever wondered what happens to the chemicals in the sunscreen after they touch your skin? Recent studies have shed light on this topic, raising important questions about the absorption of sunscreen ingredients into our bodies and their potential long-term effects.



Understanding Skin Absorption of Sunscreen


The skin, our body’s largest organ, is not just a passive barrier. It can absorb various chemicals from the personal care products we use daily. In her June 2019 article for the Townsend Letter, Dr. Anne Marie Fine emphasized that the skin can serve as a significant entry point for toxic substances. This revelation has prompted the FDA to scrutinize the ingredients in sunscreen products more closely.


What Does the Research Say?


A 2020 clinical study, following a 2019 pilot study, confirmed that active ingredients in sunscreens are indeed absorbed through the skin, leading to systemic exposure. This means these chemicals enter our bloodstream and circulate throughout our body. But what levels of these chemicals are we talking about, and are they safe?


FDA Guidelines on Systemic Exposure


The FDA has set a guideline level of 0.5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) for systemic exposure to sunscreen chemicals. This threshold is based on cancer risk estimates, aiming to keep the associated risk below 1 in 100,000 after a single exposure. The studies found that blood concentrations of several common sunscreen ingredients exceeded this level. Does this mean we should be concerned?


The 2019 and 2020 Studies: Key Findings


In 2019, researchers tested blood levels of four sunscreen chemicals (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule) in healthy volunteers. They found that these chemicals were present in concentrations above the 0.5 ng/mL threshold. Building on this, the 2020 study expanded the research to include six additional active ingredients in various sunscreen formulations, such as lotions and sprays.


Participants applied sunscreen according to manufacturer guidelines and had their blood sampled over several days. Results showed that:


  • Avobenzone levels remained above 0.5 ng/mL until day 7 in 95% of participants.

  • Octisalate exceeded the threshold until day 7 in 75% of participants.

  • Octinoxate stayed elevated until day 7 in 90% of participants.

  • Octocrylene was above 0.5 ng/mL until day 10 in 67% of participants.

  • Homosalate remained high until day 21 in 55% of participants.

  • Oxybenzone stayed elevated until day 21 in 96% of participants.


Moreover, these chemicals were detected in skin samples up to seven days after the last application, despite daily showers. What implications do these findings have for our health and safety?


The Bigger Picture: Sunscreen Safety and Effectiveness


While these findings raise questions about systemic absorption, it's essential to balance them against the proven benefits of sunscreen. Sunscreen is crucial for preventing sunburn, actinic keratosis (precancerous skin lesions), and squamous cell carcinoma. Yet, the safety of some ingredients remains under scrutiny.


FDA's Position on Sunscreen Ingredients


The FDA's proposed rule for over-the-counter sunscreens in February 2019 aims to update and strengthen the safety standards for these products. Only two ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are currently recognized as “generally regarded as safe and effective” (GRASE). Others, like para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and trolamine salicylate, are not considered safe.


Potential Health Risks of Sunscreen Chemicals


Concerns about systemic absorption of sunscreen ingredients aren't new. Since the first evidence surfaced in 1997, certain chemicals have been linked to potential risks, including cancer and adverse effects on the endocrine and reproductive systems. Additionally, their environmental impact, particularly on coral reefs, has led to bans in some regions.


Navigating Sunscreen Use: What Should You Do?


Given the current understanding, how should you approach sunscreen use? Here are some practical tips to consider:


  1. Choose GRASE Ingredients: Opt for sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These mineral-based sunscreens sit on top of the skin rather than being absorbed into it.

  2. Broader Sun Protection: Sunscreen should be part of a comprehensive sun protection strategy. Seek shade, wear protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses.

  3. Read Labels Carefully: Look for sunscreens that meet FDA guidelines and avoid those with ingredients under scrutiny.

  4. Consider Lycopene-Rich Foods: Adding lycopene-rich foods like tomatoes, apricots, and watermelon to your diet can help protect against UV damage naturally.


Questions to Reflect On:


  • What kind of sunscreen do you currently use, and how does it align with FDA guidelines?

  • How might the systemic absorption of sunscreen ingredients impact your decision on which products to use?

  • Are there ways you can enhance your sun protection routine beyond just using sunscreen?

  • How can you balance the benefits of using sunscreen with potential concerns about chemical absorption?

  • What role do diet and lifestyle choices play in your overall approach to skin protection?


As we continue to explore the effects of sunscreen chemicals on our health and the environment, staying informed and making conscious choices will help us navigate these complexities. How will you adapt your sun protection strategy in light of this new information?

By understanding the absorption of sunscreen chemicals, you can make better-informed decisions about protecting your skin and health. Let this knowledge guide you to safer, more effective sun protection strategies.


Further Reading


  • Fine, Anne Marie, NMD. “The Skin as Exposome: An Underappreciated Route of Entry for Toxicants.” Townsend Letter, June 2019.

  • Califf, Robert M., and Kanade Shinkai. “Filling in the Evidence About Sunscreen.” JAMA, May 6, 2019.


For those interested in delving deeper into this topic, these articles provide a wealth of additional information and insights.


Explore more about safe sun protection practices and the latest in sunscreen research.


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Protect wisely. Live vibrantly.

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