We think of sunscreens as topical products, but the fact is that they contain ingredients that aid in the absorption of the product into the skin. Since these chemicals are being absorbed into your body, they’re actually measurable in the blood and urine, as well as in breast milk.
A recent study published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) states that some chemicals in sunscreen are detectable in the bloodstream after just one use. Repeated applications after swimming or sweating or even daily use results in a buildup of these chemicals in your body, and a significant amount of them remain there for at least twenty-four hours after the last use of a sunscreen product. This study prompted the FDA to begin a government safety study on the chemicals used in sunscreens.
Sunscreens are intended to be powerful enough to protect the skin against UV radiation from the sun while remaining gentle enough not to cause skin irritations. While some formulas may achieve these goals, others are causing skin reactions. It’s not a priority for manufacturers of many common sunscreens to consider the damaging effect that their ingredients may have on internal organs once absorbed through the skin, ingested when using lip balms, or inhaled from spray-on sunscreens. According to the nonprofit EWG (Environmental Working Group), between two and six of the following UV filter chemicals are used in most sunscreen products:
- titanium dioxide
- zinc oxide
The EWG also determined that the majority of sunscreens don’t offer enough UV protection and at the same time, may contain harmful chemicals – a full 84 percent of 831 sunscreens EWG tested didn’t meet their health and environmental safety standards. The EWG states that chemical filters can disrupt hormones, which is supported by previous studies that showed possible links between oxybenzone and hormone changes in men, lower testosterone in boys, and shorter pregnancies as well as lower infant birth weights. Since certain sunscreen chemicals are detectable in breast milk, these chemicals are also being ingested by babies when breast feeding. There are environmental impacts as well – Hawaii, Key West and Palau have banned the use of products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate because they bleach coral and are hazardous to marine ecosystems.
Earlier this year, the FDA declared mineral filters – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – safe for use in sunscreens. However, the FDA also stated that twelve of the most commonly used chemical filters lack data as to their safety for human use; the FDA currently plans to work with manufacturers to assess these ingredients in order to determine whether they pose health risks. Among those twelve ingredients are four chemicals that remain detectable in the bloodstream for at least twenty-four hours after only one use: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule.
That said, our skin still needs protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays – according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the US than all other cancers combined.” While it’s true that too much exposure to the sun’s UV rays can cause problems ranging in severity from sunburn to skin cancer, our bodies need a certain amount of sunlight to make vitamin D and regulate the neurotransmitters that control our sleep/wake cycles and our moods.
There are safer ways to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging rays – these include choosing the right type of clothing to wear while outdoors, avoiding the sun during its peak hours (between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.), and choosing safer sunscreens. The EWG website has many suggestions on how to avoid sunburn as well as sunscreen ratings from the safest to the least desirable so you can make better, safer choices for yourself and your family.