The Truth About Sunscreen ChemicalsJanuary 28, 2020
News media reporting on a new study that looked at chemicals found in some sunscreens is spreading some pretty dire misconceptions.
The study, conducted by researchers from America’s Food and Drug Association (FDA) and published last week in the Journal of American Medical Association, involved 48 participants (24 female, 24 male) who applied sunscreen on 75% of their bodies on the first day of the study. On the second, third and fourth days, they applied the same amount of sunscreen four times per day. 34 blood samples were collected and analysed from days 1 to 21. Analysis looked at six chemicals that are often found in chemical sunscreens; avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate. All six chemicals were found in participants’ blood samples at higher levels than recommended by America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA)1.
Here’s what the news media missed
The six chemicals involved in the study are not found in all sunscreens. It is true that these are popular ingredients for chemical sunscreens, but they are rarely ever present in physical sunscreens.
The difference? Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin and they work by filtering UV radiation from the sun. Physical sunscreens create an invisible layer on the surface of the skin and reflect UV radiation. You can usually tell the difference by looking at the main active ingredients. Physical sunscreens use zinc and titanium dioxide, and they’ll usually state this on the front label. These active ingredients are not found to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Dr Cussell, our Clinical Director and founder of RejuvAus skincare, which includes a physical sunscreen with no nasty ingredients, says that he strongly recommends a physical sunscreen because chemical sunscreens absorb UV energy and gradually lose their SPF. Instead of absorbing UV energy, physical sunscreens will create a barrier that reflects UV energy away from the skin and maintains its protective properties.
Chemical sunscreens are also more likely to have occlusive (pore-clogging) ingredients which can contribute to acne.
Why you shouldn’t worry
When studies like these are reported, we sometimes see a wave of panic on social media about the supposed dangers of using sunscreen. While it can be tempting to worry, it’s important to really understand the outcome of the study. This new study only concluded that six chemicals are absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin. It did not look at the health implications of these chemicals in the bloodstream. In fact, the publication clearly states that “these findings do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen.” No adverse health effects (aside from rash in 14 participants) were found.
Further research is required to determine whether these ingredients are safe for regular use. We know from previous research that oxybenzone is harmful to marine life, but Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) considers up to 10% product concentrations of oxybenzone to be safe for human use.
If you prefer to take caution and wait for further research on how these chemicals interact with our systems, our Clinical Director recommends using a physical sunscreen anyway. Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. By no means should you stop wearing sunscreen altogether.
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