You’ve probably seen the headlines. Back in February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it only classified as safe two active ingredients commonly found in sunscreen (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide). The FDA called for more research on the other active ingredients in popular sunblocks and proposed an update to the regulatory requirements for sunscreens in the America.
Then, in May, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that found some sunscreen chemicals can be absorbed through skin into the bloodstream. The study was based on the results of a trial conducted by the F.D.A. and focused on the chemicals in four different and readily available sunscreens. Subjects were slathered generously four times a day on 75 percent of their bodies (comparable to what an avid sunblock user might apply for a day at the beach). Blood tests later showed the four sunscreen chemicals (avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule and octocrylene) in concentrations that exceed the F.D.A. threshold that determines when manufacturers are required to do additional safety testing.
Health Canada updated its sunscreen regulations in 2018, and we have more approved active ingredients than the U.S. (22 to America’s 16), but still, the possibility that sunscreen might not be safe is worrying. Luckily, the F.D.A.’s recommendations don’t necessarily spell doom and gloom. For starters, no one’s really surprise that these ingredients absorb into the bloodstream, says Allison Sutton, a medical and cosmetic dermatologist in Vancouver. “We put things on our skin expecting them to be absorbed and therefore to work—this is how we treat skin conditions with topical medications,” she says.
How worried should I be about sunscreen chemicals?
For now, not very. “This is not evidence that sunscreens are harmful,” says Sutton. “It’s entirely possible, and the most likely scenario, that the amounts absorbed are completely safe.” After all, in Canada and the U.S., we’ve basically been using the same sunscreen formulations for decades with no obvious health issues.
On the other hand, lack of negative evidence doesn’t prove that conventional sunscreens are safe. They could be contributing to a range of health problems, in ways that are difficult to trace back directly to our sunblocks. Plus, there are some animal studies that have raised a red flag about the effects of oxybenzone (a common chemical filter) which may be an endocrine disruptor, meaning it could damage anything from reproductive health to a person’s immune system.
There’s some speculation that the more broad spectrum chemical sunblocks available in Europe, which use different chemical ingredients, may be more effective at preventing sun damage and possibly safer, too. But, since they haven’t been approved by the F.D.A. or Health Canada, we won’t be seeing them anytime soon. (Unless you’re on an overseas vacay this summer, in which case bringing a few tubes home isn’t a terrible idea.)
So… what should I do with the sunscreen I already own?
Whatever you do, don’t stop using sunblock.“There is strong scientific evidence of the adverse effects of UV exposure in contrast to the hypothetical negative effects of sunscreen on your health,” says Sutton. “The only proven health risk so far is too much sun exposure.” And for the record, that’s a big one. Despite all the warnings about sun safety, melanoma rates remain high: About 7,200 Canadians were diagnosed with this form of skin cancer in 2017, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
“Sunscreens are a key component of preventing skin damage that can lead to skin cancer,” says Sutton. The Canadian Dermatology Association recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. It should be broad-spectrum, to protect against UVB (or burning rays) and UVA (aging rays) and ideally water-resistant, too.
Here’s a handy rule: An adult in a swimsuit will need roughly 1 ounce (or a shot glass worth) of product to cover their exposed skin, and it should be reapplied every two hours—or more often if you’re swimming or working out.
What else can I do to protect myself from UV rays?
Sunscreen shouldn’t be your only line of defence. Avoid exposure during peak hours (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), seek shade, cover up with hats, sunglasses and UV protective clothing and then apply sunscreen generously and often, when you need to.
And if you’re concerned about the potential health effects of the big name chemical sunscreen brands, the answer for now is pretty simple: don’t use them. Switch to a mineral-based blocker that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which sit on the skin to deflect UV rays instead of absorbing into the skin. (That’s why many cast a white glow.)