The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just published the results of a pilot study conducted by FDA scientists in the Journal of American Medical Association’s JAMA Network that demonstrated four chemicals commonly used in commercial sunscreens seep into the bloodstream after just one day of use. Should consumers be concerned? The jury is still out as to what extent these chemicals in your bloodstream may present a health hazard. We do know that the chemicals from the sunscreen products were absorbed into the bloodstream at a rate higher than the FDA’s proposed guidelines for safety. The FDA has since recommended that active ingredients in sunscreen absorbed into the bloodstream above a certain level undergo toxicology testing. In fact, in early 2019 the FDA proposed a new policy that would require stricter regulation of sunscreens that contain 12 chemicals the agency has deemed lacking in sufficient safety data. The current study looked at four of those 12 chemicals.
This was a randomized clinical trial that included 24 study participants. During the study participants remained inside the clinic for up to 7 days and were not exposed to direct sunlight, humidity or heat–any or all of which could dramatically affect the absorption rate of the product. Participants applied various sunscreens four times per day in two-hour increments to mimic normal sunscreen reapplication guidelines. Participants applied one of two spray sunscreens, a lotion, or a cream. Each sunscreen contained different combinations of four chemicals focused on by the researchers: avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule, and octocrylene.
After one day of sunscreen use, participants had traces of the chemicals from the various products in their bloodstreams. This was the case for all four chemicals and all four sunscreen formulas.
Of the four chemicals present in participants’ bloodstreams, Oxybenzone* had an especially high absorption rate. Oxybenzone (aka, Benzophenone-3 / BP-3) absorbs and scatters the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays which is why it is frequently used in sunscreens. Over a decade ago the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) tested over 2,500 people and found that nearly everyone tested aged 6 years old and up had Oxybenzone in their urine. Despite the fact that this chemical is approved by the FDA and widely used by U.S. sunscreen and cosmetic manufacturers, the full health effects of Oxybenzone are still unknown.
*Oxybenzone: Researchers from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have rated Oxybenzone’s overall hazard/potential toxic effects in sunscreen and cosmetics as moderate to high because it has been associated with photoallergenic reactions/enhanced skin absorption. Additionally, there has been some evidence linking this chemical to hormone disruption as well as to adverse skin reactions among some consumers, but more research is needed.
Given the results of the initial pilot study, a larger study is needed that accounts for users’ skin types, gender, age, and other variables under real life conditions as opposed to inside a clinic. Additionally, scientific studies should be conducted testing the safety of all 12 chemicals (including the four chemicals in the current pilot study) commonly used as active ingredients in sunscreens and other personal care products. Safety testing should examine the effects of these chemicals on children and adults.
In the meantime, the FDA and a number of healthcare experts have recommended that consumers continue to use sunscreens. If you would like to use a Oxybenzone-Free sunscreen there are a number of options on the market. Just put the words, “oxybenzone-free sunscreen” into your favorite search engine. There are also a number of sunscreen options available that list themselves as ‘natural’, free of not only Oxybenzone, but other active and inactive ingredients that are potential chemicals of concern as well. Search engine options include ‘natural sunscreens’ and ‘chemical-free sunscreens’.
Journal Reference: Matta, M., et al. (2019). Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients,