As a result, in 2019, the FDA proposed that sunscreens containing UV-filtering chemicals that absorb from the skin into the blood at systemic concentrations greater than 0.5 ng/mL should be tested for potential safety concerns, including cancer or birth defects. Of interest, in May 2019, an FDA study tested for how much each of the 4 chemicals were absorbed into the bloodstream after 4 applications of sunscreen in 1 day. Multiple sunscreens were tested and each one resulted in systemic chemical concentrations exceeding the threshold of 0.5ng/mL, with oxybenzone blood concentrations 50-100 times higher than the other 3 ingredients. The one promising result from this study was that utilizing sunscreen lotion reduced active ingredient absorption into the blood in comparison to sprays. Overall, the study displayed the need for further studies to determine the clinical significance of these findings; it is also important to note the FDA continues to suggest using sunscreen.
Oxybenzone has been previously found in breast milk at dangerously high levels. In a Swiss study, 78% of women reported using cosmetic UV filters and 77% of their milk samples contained these filters, showing a significant correlation between UV filter use and human milk concentration. In addition to human health concerns, oxybenzone has been shown to be harmful to coral reefs, which has led vacation destinations including Hawaii and Key West to ban sunscreens with this ingredient. This UV filter accumulates in marine environments and causes coral bleaching, threatenings its resilience to climate change.
Oxybenzone is found in nearly 60% of non-mineral sunscreens of EWG’s sunscreen guide yet additional data is needed to measure skin absorption and its impacts on hormone levels. In response to these findings, the EWG has recommended using mineral-based sunscreen products, which are made of titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which have met standards of effectiveness and safety. No risks have been found to be associated with these 2 ingredients. The EWG also advises consumers to avoid products claiming a sun protection factor (SPF) higher than 50+, as these types of sunscreens can bring a false sense of protection. In addition, consumers are recommended to use lotions instead of sprays or powder products, since lotions cannot be deeply inhaled into the lungs.
Despite the need for additional research on sunscreen ingredients, the FDA, EWG, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all strongly advise for the application of sunscreen to prevent UV-related skin damage, ranging from sunburn to skin cancer. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Using broad-spectrum protection, water-resistant mineral-based sunscreen lotion with SPF 30 to fully cover the body is the best way to protect your skin from sunburn, early skin aging, and skin cancer. Wearing protective gear such as hats, long-sleeves, and sunglasses can help prevent sunburns and keep the body safe. Here’s a link to some favorite, affordable sunscreen options that fit the bill.
Shivani Gupta is a rising first-year medical student at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and currently investigating the effects of disaster preparedness among families with children with medical complexities. She completed her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. Throughout her high school and undergraduate career she was involved in outreach efforts for women in STEM, including writing for HerCampus and serving as outreach chair for Society of Women Engineers (SWE). In her down time, she enjoys rewatching classic rom-coms, yoga, and baking.