New research from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) finds that chemicals in sunscreen are absorbed into the bloodstream at 2.6 to 7.6 times the known-safe level.
Sunscreen products may be applied several times a day, both as regular sunscreen and as part of cosmetics. Even with modest use, these products can result in multiple grams of sunscreen being applied daily. We use them from infancy onward, yet little is known about systemic exposure to these chemicals.
What’s in sunscreen? And what did the FDA find?
Avobenzone is the main ingredient used to block UV-A light. Oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule are also used in most sunscreens. These active ingredients are considered safe at levels up to 0.5 ng/mL in blood. In amounts greater than that the FDA recommends a toxicology assessment.
In this study, the FDA tested the effect of four commercial sunscreens, and found 2.6 to 7.6 times the known-safe level of avobenzone. The peer-reviewed study found similarly high levels of three other UV blockers in the bloodstream.
“All 4 sunscreen active ingredients tested resulted in exposures exceeding 0.5 ng/mL. The clinical effect of plasma concentrations exceeding 0.5 ng/mL is unknown, necessitating further research.” –FDA
24 participants were instructed to apply one of four different types of sunscreen, four times a day, for four days to 75% of their bodies. (This reflects common summer use in North America.) Researchers measured the concentration of the four chemicals in the bloodstream.
The levels were far higher than the 0.5 ng/mL threshold on the first day; three remained in the bloodstream for at least 7 days. The FDA recommends assessing the potential risks for cancer (“systemic carcinogenicity”), childhood development and reproduction.
So, should you stop using sunscreen?
No! The study authors note the results DO NOT mean that people should stop using sunscreen. Sun burn has real risks, both in immediate harm and by increasing the risk of skin cancer.
"Just because they are absorbed doesn’t mean they are unsafe...That’s why we are asking for additional data,” study coauthor Dr. Theresa Michele told NBC News. Dr. Michele is the director of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products.
The FDA has previously included those four chemicals on a list of ingredients that need more research before they can be considered generally safe and effective.
Dermatologists’ Response to the Study
In response to the FDA study, American Academy of Dermatologists (AAD) stated “these sunscreen ingredients have been used for several decades without any reported internal side effects in humans.”
AAD encourages the continued use of sunscreen, as it reduces the risk of skin cancer, according to in a number of scientific studies. Skin cancer is the one of the most common cancers in the United States, and unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays is a major risk factor for skin cancer.
States Ban on Some Sunscreens
The National Park Service says that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter reef areas each year, and studies have found that the chemicals they contain can damage coral reefs, contributing to “bleaching” and death.
In July 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban sunscreens containing chemicals harmful to coral. Oxybenzone, one of the active ingredients of focus in the above study, is toxic to coral reefs.
In February 2019, Key West, Florida, also voted to ban the sale on sunscreens containing two chemicals that damage or kill coral.
Other concerns with Oxybenzone
- Broad prevalence: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the prevalence of oxybenzone exposure in the general US population to be 96.8%.
- 70% test positive: A 10-year study aiming to describe allergens from a sunscreen source found that 70% of people had a positive patch test when exposed to oxybenzone.
- Found in 75% of breast milk: A Swiss study found oxybenzone or one of four other sunscreen chemicals in 75% of breast milk samples. Use of UV filters such as sunscreen was significantly correlated with this. The spark concern that newborns could be exposed.
The long-term effects of regular exposure to these UV-blocking ingredients are unknown. More research is needed to understand the effects and risks these may pose.
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