What you need to know about the chemicals in your sunscreen

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Recently, news stories have raised alarms about sunscreens. Last summer, many sunscreens were pulled after the discovery of benzene, a known carcinogen. Other research has shown that some sunscreen ingredients can leach through the skin into the bloodstream, and the Food and Drug Administration has asked manufacturers for more data on their safety. Hawaii has banned some of the ingredients due to concerns they could harm ocean coral reefs.

With all that said, you may be asking yourself if sunscreen is still worth it.

The short answer: Absolutely. While these issues raise real concerns, the risks at this point are more theoretical than proven. On the other hand, regular use of sunscreen clearly prevents skin cancers and saves lives. Some research suggests that it can reduce the risk of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, by about 50 percent.

Plus, there are smart choices you can make to make sure the sunscreens you choose for yourself and your family are safe, effective, and possibly even better for the environment.

Why your sunscreen isn’t working

To aid in this effort, Consumer Reports tests dozens of sunscreens, identifying which ones work best and which ones don’t protect you either. We also tested every single sunscreen spray in our gasoline reviews: they were all free of harmful chemicals. (Read “Benzene, a Known Carcinogen, Found in Some Sunscreens, Deodorants, and Other Products” to learn more about benzene in aerosol personal care products.) We also delved into research and spoke with experts to understand the potential health and environmental health risks it poses. Some sunscreen ingredients. Here are answers to some important questions.

Recent research has led to some concerns about chemical sunscreens — those that use one or more of the dozens of chemical ingredients approved for use in the United States to filter out the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it wanted more information about the safety of these ingredients, including whether they are absorbed systemically — through the skin and into the bloodstream. This is partly because Americans now use more sunscreens than in the past, and because today’s products contain more formulations and higher concentrations of ingredients.

Soon, FDA scientists published studies showing that six common chemical ingredients — avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene and oxybenzone — actually enter the bloodstream.

The FDA emphasizes that absorption does not mean these ingredients are unsafe. But the amounts absorbed were above levels the Food and Drug Administration says would exempt them from safety tests, so more research is needed.

“The key question is whether this systemic absorption actually causes harm,” says Kathleen Suzzi, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

The lab found a carcinogen in dozens of sunscreens. Here’s what these results really mean.

The final answers may be years away. “Generating the kind of information the FDA wants is difficult, time-consuming, and very expensive,” says Mark Chandler, president of ACT Solutions, which consults with sunscreen and other cosmetic manufacturers on product formulation.

Avoid chemical sunscreens?

The Food and Drug Administration, the American Academy of Dermatology, and independent researchers say there is no need for people to stop using chemical sunscreens.

“Millions of people have used these UV filters for years, and there have been no noticeable systemic effects,” says Henry W. Lim, MD, a leading sunscreen researcher and former chief of dermatology at Henry Ford Health in Michigan, who also consulted with sunscreen makers. “I still feel very comfortable saying this is a safe way to prevent skin cancer and other damage from the sun.”

But some of these chemicals may be more worrisome than others. “Oxybenzone and, to a lesser extent, octinoxate have emerged as the most important concern,” Lim says.

This is primarily because preliminary animal research suggests that oxybenzone may interfere with hormone production, which could theoretically affect fertility, puberty, and thyroid function. But sunscreen research in humans hasn’t raised any major concerns. For example, although a 2020 review of 29 studies looking at the health effects of oxybenzone and octinoxate said more research is needed, it did not identify clear links to any health problems.

However, to play it safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents not use sunscreens containing oxybenzone on children. People of any age who would like to avoid sunscreens using either of these two chemicals can easily do so, because manufacturers now use them less frequently. Few of the sunscreens in our ratings contain oxybenzone and none of them contain octinoxate.

It’s true that sunscreens that contain the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide — which work by creating a physical barrier on your skin — aren’t absorbed into the skin and don’t make their way into the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, mineral sunscreens may not be as effective as products with more efficient chemical filters, Chandler says. All CR-tested mineral sunscreens appear near the middle or bottom of our ratings.

3.4 million Americans could be diagnosed with skin cancer in 2022

One possible reason: It takes a lot of titanium or zinc to create a product with a high SPF, Chandler says, and it’s hard to do without making the sunscreen thick, shiny, and hard to rub in. In addition, minerals sometimes clump in the product, so as not to disperse evenly on the skin, leaving potential gaps in the protection.

Try “reef safe” products?

Some research suggests that oxybenzone and octinoxate may threaten coral reefs and harm other marine life. So far, this connection has been studied primarily at high doses and in the lab, rather than in the real world. And in research looking at sunscreen chemicals in ocean waters, the amounts detected, even on popular beaches, are well below levels associated with harm in lab studies.

However, the potential concern has prompted Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands, and some other locations to ban sunscreens containing either of the two ingredients. And some sunscreen manufacturers now label their products as “coral reef safe.” In most cases, the term is used when the product does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. But the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate this term, so it has no specific meaning.

So if you want a product without oxybenzone or octinoxate, your best bet is to check the ingredients list.

Does the spray or lotion work better?

If used correctly, both can do a good job.

But sprays can be tricky to apply. “The droplets can scatter in the air, which makes it easy to miss areas on your skin,” Lim says. To avoid this, spray sunscreen on the palm of your hand and then rub it in. The next best thing is to hold the nozzle an inch from your skin, spray until you can see a film on your skin and then rub it off.

Also, be careful not to inhale the spray, as the ingredients may irritate or harm your lungs. (For this reason, CR experts say it’s best not to use a nebulizer on children.) Spraying it into your hand also helps prevent inhalation. Never spray directly on your face, and be careful with sprays when it’s windy. The spray can blow into your face and mouth, or spread out and not cover your skin enough.

Skipping sunscreen if you’re covering up?

Not completely. You still need it on exposed skin. Experts point to massive amounts of research linking sun exposure to about 90 percent of skin cancers, and the proven effectiveness of sunscreens in blocking cancer-causing UV rays.

In rare cases, people with dark skin can develop skin cancer. But sunscreens won’t help.

But covering up means you can use much less sunscreen. For example, if you’re wearing a long-sleeved swim shirt or rash guard instead of a traditional swimsuit, you don’t need to apply sunscreen to your arms, back, and chest. This can reduce the amount of sunscreen you need on your body that may reach your skin or into the ocean.

Dermatologists say sunscreen should never be your only defense against UV rays. Try to avoid the sun at its strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and when you’re outside, especially during those hours, cover up, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and seek shade when possible.

Concerns about absorption of sunscreen ingredients through the skin and into the bloodstream have prompted some researchers to look for alternatives, says Christopher Banek, MD, professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine.

There researchers are exploring formulations with chemical sunscreen ingredients, which would keep them on top of the skin and provide protection without being absorbed.

Some sunscreen ingredients used in Europe and Canada may also be approved here. A few of them are stuck in the FDA approval process. “So this is a glimmer of hope that we may eventually see [them] used in sunscreens in the United States,” Lim says.

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

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