Is Your Sunscreen Safe? The Sunscreen Controversy

Being quite the fair-skinned person with more than my fair share of moles, I tend to minimize my sun exposure as if I were avoiding the plague. After having multiple moles removed, I don’t have the same summertime goals as I did many years ago. I was that girl who wanted to be sure she “laid out” evenly on both sides, much like cooking a rotisserie chicken. Now I have “mole checks” every 6 months with my dermatologist, and she and I discuss our latest travel plans while meticulously comparing images of my moles. We make the best of an otherwise stressful appointment. No matter how many good visits I have, it never gets any easier wondering if the m-word could be brought up. Melanoma is the fastest growing cancer in the United States and worldwide, with one in 50 Americans developing melanoma in their lifetime.

Know your skin, keep an eye out for any changes, and wear sunscreen.

And speaking of – if there’s one summertime topic getting a lot of press lately – it’s sunscreen.

In February, the FDA issued a proposed rule which would address regulatory requirements for most sunscreen products in the United States. The new proposal would update active ingredient safety, dosage forms, sun protection factor (SPF) and broad-spectrum (UVA + UVB) requirements, and include easier-to-read labeling.

A study published in the May 6, 2019 Journal of the American Medical Association recently confirmed that sunscreen ingredients are absorbed through the skin and into the body. This “maximal usage trial” looked at active ingredients (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule) of four commercially available sunscreen products and found that when using the maximum amount based on the product’s directions for use, blood concentrations of all four ingredients significantly exceeded the limit established by the FDA.

Interestingly enough, these concentrations were reached for all four products after four applications on day 1.

When the FDA first considered sunscreen safety, it grandfathered in active ingredients from the late 1970s without reviewing evidence of their potential hazards. The FDA is now requesting additional safety data on 12 active sunscreen ingredients available in currently marketed products. These ingredients, which include oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, avobenzone and others, are used in more than 50 percent of the sunscreens assessed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for this year’s Guide to Sunscreens. The FDA also states that “all of these sunscreen active ingredients … have limited or no data characterizing their absorption.”

Several sunscreens often include ingredients that act as “penetration enhancers” to help the product adhere to skin. This allows many sunscreen chemicals to be absorbed into the body and be measurable in not only blood, but also breast milk and urine samples.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely detect oxybenzone in more than 96 percent of Americans, based upon representative sampling of both children and adults.

In an evaluation of data collected by the CDC, researchers discovered that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone measurements had significantly lower total testosterone levels. Further research is needed to clarify the hormonal disruption associated with oxybenzone use in both children and adults. Oxybenzone has been found in amniotic fluid and several studies have raised concern about exposure during pregnancy. The EWG recommends avoiding sunscreens containing oxybenzone.

Even still, oxybenzone alone was found in 2/3 of the products evaluated in EWG’s 2019 Guide to Sunscreens.

And let’s not forget the long-standing concern of inadvertently inhaling sunscreen when spraying it on or ingesting certain ingredients when applying it to your lips, potentially harming your lungs or internal organs.

Inactive ingredients typically make up 50 to 70 percent of a sunscreen. One such concerning ingredient is the preservative methylisothiazolinone, a known skin irritant and allergen. Serious cases of skin allergies have been reported by physicians in children exposed to methylisothiazolinone, by baby wipes and other products meant to be left on the skin. This ingredient can even be found in numerous children’s body care products labeled as “hypoallergenic”.

To further complicate the sunscreen puzzle, some sunscreen ingredients may accumulate in coral and become toxic to marine life. Studies have shown that sunscreen ingredients, including oxybenzone, may contribute to coral reef decline. Beginning in 2021, the state of Hawaii will ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are known to harm coral.

A Note on SPF

Remember SPF is a measure of how well UVB rays are blocked. UVB rays are the type that cause the skin to burn and are one of the types responsible for skin cancer. If you are wearing an SPF of 4 you will receive the same amount of damage in 4 hours that you would have received in one hour without any SPF. An SPF of 10 will give you 10 hours, an SPF of 30 will give you 30 hours, and so on.

 Sun protection factor is not linear.

Let’s repeat that again for those in the back, SPF is not linear! In other words, you don’t get 10 times more protection going from SPF 1 to 10 or 10 to 100. When you apply SPF 10, you are blocking approximately 90% of UVB rays. SPF 15 blocks approximately 93%; SPF 30, approximately 97%; and SPF 50, 98%.  So applying an SPF of 30 only gives you 7% more protection than SPF 10. Basically, lower SPF products applied more frequently may offer similar protection as higher SPFs.

Application is key – do not apply your sunscreen sparingly and reapply OFTEN.

Several studies have found that people are misled by the claims on high-SPF sunscreen products. High SPF sunscreens not only fall short in providing adequate sun protection, but according to the FDA, they may also overexpose consumers to UVA rays and increase the risk of cancer. While the damage caused by UVA rays may be less apparent than the burn seen from UVB rays; UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin causing premature aging, wrinkles, suppression of the immune system, and are associated with a higher risk of developing melanoma.

Sunlight has 500 times more UVA rays than UVB, but unfortunately high-SPF products suppress sunburn caused by UVB much more effectively than other types of damage caused by UVA. The FDA is proposing to limit SPF values and increase UVA protection to ensure better protection.

Better Sunscreen in Europe?

While we know most sunscreens prevent sunburn when used correctly, they aren’t as good at preventing the more “silent” skin damage caused by lower-energy UVA radiation. In Europe, manufacturers can choose from seven ingredients that offer strong protection against UVA rays but are not available in the United States. It’s estimated by EWG that only half of the beach and sport sunscreens assessed in this year’s guide would be allowed in the European market due to inadequate UVA filtering.

Lab testing confirmed this assumption. Of the 20 common U.S. sunscreens tested, only 11 met European standards. Of the 9 products that failed, eight were SPF 50 or higher. In the American market, only two FDA-approved ingredients filter UVA rays (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide). While not all European sunscreen chemicals should be allowed in the U.S. market, increasing UVA protection is a must. The problem? Some of the manufacturer safety data required by the FDA could take years to produce, adding to the dilemma of how to provide better UVA and broad spectrum protection to Americans.

Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreens

Simply put, a mineral (or barrier) sunscreen works by physically blocking UV light. Barrier sunscreens include zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the primary ingredient. However, chemical sunscreens (think oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octorylene, and others) work by absorbing UV light. These chemicals are absorbed into the body and can contribute to systemic toxicity. Bodily absorption of barrier sunscreens becomes an issue when the particles are very small.

Nanotechnology –

Sounds like a fancy scientific term, right? It’s basically the way ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are reduced down into smaller nano-particles to avoid the all-too-common ghosting effect of barrier sunscreens. Products listed as “micronized” mean the same as containing nano-particles. But here’s the thing – nano-particles may or may not be absorbed by the skin into the body and little is known about their long-term effects. The evidence is conflicting.

Non-nano products, such as those containing non-nano zinc, sit on the surface of the skin and are large enough that they do no not cross into the bloodstream. But as with any product, pros and cons exist. While we know there are numerous concerns with chemical sunscreens, mineral sunscreens may need to be re-applied more often because they sit on the surface of the skin and rinse off more easily. As much as technology has advanced, mineral sunscreens may still leave an opaque residue on your skin. It’s important to select one that absorbs into your skin easily. You must apply mineral sunscreens LIBERALLY to ensure adequate coverage!

My Go-To: Mineral Sunscreen Lotion by Young Living

Why: It’s an effective broad-spectrum sunscreen made with non-nano zinc oxide and free of UV chemical sunscreens, parabens, phthalates, petrochemicals, animal-derived ingredients, synthetic preservatives, synthetic fragrances/dyes.

Tips For Applying Mineral Sunscreen:

  • Apply liberally 15 minutes before sun exposure.
  • Reapply a minimum of every 80 minutes if swimming or sweating, immediately after towel drying, or at least every 2 hours.
  • Limit your time in the sun between 10am and 2pm.
  • Mineral sunscreens can be very thick. Warm the bottle in your hands or let it warm up briefly in the sun before applying!
  • Before applying to children less than 6 months old: Ask your doctor.

Sunscreen isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and as you can see there’s quite a bit of controversy around the subject. One thing is certain however – wearing sunscreen is a must to provide protection from the sun’s harmful rays.

Be sure to check out the Skin Deep database by EWG for product and ingredient safety ratings or download the Think Dirty App to evaluate the ingredients in your sunscreens this summer!

Live well, by design.

– Lauren