Sun protection is absolutely necessary to prevent skin cancers. It’s as simple as that. The question is how to do this safely. Sunscreen has always been the gold standard, but a study conducted by the FDA in summer 2019 found that some of the chemicals commonly found in sunscreens are absorbed into the bloodstream. A new study done in January 2020 again raised concerns as the chemicals absorbed into the body were found to linger for days, even weeks. In addition to that finding, the levels absorbed by the body were well above levels deemed acceptable by the FDA.
What’s more, the testing showed that just a single application of sunscreen — whether as a lotion or a spray — increases the blood levels of these active ingredients beyond the FDA’s threshold for determining if they need more study to be considered safe for use.
Exactly how these chemicals affect the body is uncertain; further studies are needed to define what regulations may be required to ensure our safety.
In 2016, the FDA established a rule that makers of over-the-counter sunscreens needed to prove the ingredients in their products are safe and effective. Companies were told they needed to provide data from a “maximal usage trial” to determine to what degree ingredients were absorbed into the blood – the same standard used by the FDA for all topically applied drugs. Research into the topic of sunscreen, the safety and effectiveness of ingredients has been ongoing for over a decade. Previously, ingredients like ecamsule and enzacamene were declined by the FDA for use in sunscreens because of the lack of data to support their safety and effectiveness against sun damage.
So what new information do you need to know from the most recent study? Here are the highlights:
- The study examined blood levels of four common sunscreen ingredients: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule.
- Blood levels of these chemicals increased in subsequent days as the sunscreen was reapplied, suggesting that the chemicals may accumulate in the blood over time.
- The study found that the level of ingredients absorbed into the bloodstream surpassed thresholds set in the 2016 FDA guidelines.
- The results revealed that within just one day of sunscreen application, all four chemicals were found in people’s blood at levels exceeding the threshold.
- Researchers say this doesn’t necessarily mean they are dangerous, but more extensive studies are needed to explore their impact on the human body.
- Future studies would explore whether blood absorption levels vary based on factors such as a person’s skin type, age, intensity of sun exposure, and how much sunscreen is applied.
Dr. Kanade Shinkai, a dermatologist at UC San Francisco, and a co-author of an editorial that accompanied the study said all those involved in the study wanted to highlight that their recommendation hasn’t changed “[People] should absolutely still use sunscreen,” as the risk of sun exposure can be very serious, including skin cancer and melanoma.
While further information is uncovered, an alternative is to use mineral-based sunscreens with active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These products coat the skin and reflect the light rather than absorb the light like other chemicals. The link at the bottom of the page shares a few options.
Besides sunscreen, there are other methods to protect yourself from the damaging rays of the sun. Wearing lightweight UPF (ultraviolet protective factor) clothing that is long-sleeved or full-length is a second level of protection for your skin. Hats, sunglasses, and of course seeking out the shade when you can, are all important factors to include in protecting yourself against sun damage. Don’t forget to hydrate too– as sun exposure can quickly lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, especially during the blazing summers of the Southwest.
Headlines always grab our attention. There’s no question more information is required to understand the effects the active ingredients in some sunscreens have on our bodies. And while concerning, it shouldn’t deter us from doing whatever is needed to stop the known effects of skin exposure to sun- skin cancer. While more research is clearly necessary to determine safety, eliminating sunscreen all together isn’t the answer. Using sunscreen options that remain on the skin’s surface (mineral based options) and adding other layers of protection are reasonable alternative until the data is in.
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