Sunscreen Chemicals Enter Bloodstream, Exceed Safety Levels

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research division has just completed their research on sunscreen chemicals.  Their findings: Seven of the most commonly used chemicals in sunscreen (including known endocrine disrupting chemicals) are, in fact, absorbed by the skin and enter the bloodstream–and when they do, they exceed safety thresholds.

“What is most alarming about these findings is that chemicals are absorbing into the body in significant amounts and the ingredients have not been fully tested for safety…It is outrageous that over a decade ago, nearly every American tested by CDC had oxybenzone* in their blood, an ingredient linked to hormone disruption, and still manufacturers have resisted safety testing.”

-David Andrews, senior scientist, Environmental Working Group


*One of CFL’s recent posts featured new scientific research demonstrating that the chemical oxybenzone triggers DNA damage in breast cells.

And then there are these study findings…

In the 2019 FDA study, “oxybenzone was absorbed into the body at about 50 to 100 times higher concentration than the other chemicals tested.” 

A 2008 Swiss study found oxybenzone or one of four other sunscreen chemicals in 85% of breast milk samples, sparking concern that newborns could be exposed. A 2010 study found another of the studied chemicals, octinoxate, in breast milk.

In 2008, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed urine samples collected by a government study and found oxybenzone in 97% of the samples.

Of all of the sunscreen ingredients, oxybenzone is known to be the most common cause of contact allergies; a 10-year study found that 70% of people had a positive patch test when exposed.

Backstory and Study Overview

The FDA recent findings, just published in the American Medical Association’s journal JAMA, also confirmed the results of a pilot study the agency published last year. That pilot study discovered four popular chemical sunscreen filters often used in commercial products — avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule — were absorbed from the skin into the bloodstream after a single day of use.

The new study reevaluated three of the original four (avobenzone, oxybenzone and octocrylene) and added three additional sunscreen chemicals — homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate.

Participants in the new study were asked to apply sunscreen on 75% of their bodies the first day. On days two through four, they were asked to apply the same amount at four times during the day.

After initial absorption, the concentration of the six chemicals in the blood increased each day of application and remained above FDA safety levels at day seven, well after application had ended. Two of the chemicals — homosalate and oxybenzone — were still above safety thresholds at day 21.

Since the sunscreens were unleashed on an unsuspecting public sans safety testing, what is next?

The FDA relies on manufacturers to provide the data on sunscreen active ingredients necessary to establish safety and effectiveness for use in sunscreens.  All of the chemicals tested are part of a dozen that the FDA wants manufacturers to research before they can be considered GRASE or “generally regarded as safe and effective.”

“This finding calls for further industry testing to determine the safety and effect of systemic exposure of sunscreen ingredients, especially with chronic use…

Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a proposed rule3 to update regulatory requirements for most sunscreen products in the United States, where sunscreens are regulated as drugs. This action was aimed at bringing over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreens up to date with the latest scientific standards.

As part of this rule, the FDA is asking industry and other interested parties for additional safety data on 12 active sunscreen ingredients currently available in marketed products. A key data gap for each of these 12 active sunscreen ingredients is understanding whether, and to what extent, the ingredient is absorbed into the body after topical application.”

-Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research Division

What should consumers do?

For those consumers who want to avoid the synthetic and industrialized chemicals of concern in commercial sunscreens, the FDA recommends using mineral-based sunscreens such as zinc-oxide.  Consumers are also urged to seek shade (especially during the hottest part of the day), wear protective clothing, hats and sunglasses.



Journal Reference: Matta, M., et al. (January 21, 2020). Original Investigation. Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2020;323(3):256-267. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.20747


Study Findings Highlights: Woodcock, J. & Michele, T. (2020). Shedding New Light on Sunscreen Absorption


And…The FDA has more on sunscreens