What you need to know about sunscreen chemicals

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The news has recently raised alarm about sunscreens. Last summer, several spray sunscreens were recalled after they were found to contain benzene, a known carcinogen. Other studies have shown that some sunscreen ingredients can enter your bloodstream through the skin, and the Food and Drug Administration has asked manufacturers for more information about their safety. And Hawaii has banned some ingredients because they can harm ocean reefs.

With all this, you may be wondering if sunscreen is still worth it.

Short answer: Of course. While these issues are real concerns, the risks in this case are more theoretical than proven. Regular use of sunscreen can prevent skin cancer and save lives. Some studies suggest that it can reduce the risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, by 50 percent.

Plus, there are smart choices to make to ensure the sunscreens you choose for you and your family are safe and effective, and maybe even better for the environment.

Why isn’t your sunscreen working?

To help with that effort, Consumer Reports tested dozens of sunscreens to find out which ones work best and which ones don’t. We’ve also tested every spray sunscreen in our ratings for gasoline: They’re all free of harmful chemicals. (For more information on benzene in aerosol personal care products, read “Benzene, a Known Carcinogen, Found in Some Spray Sunscreens, Deodorants, and Other Products.”) We also delve into research and experts to understand health and potential health risks. talked with Environmental health hazards that some sunscreen ingredients pose. Here are answers to some important questions.

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

In 2019, the FDA announced it wanted more information on the safety of those ingredients, including whether they are absorbed systemically through the skin. This is because Americans are using more sunscreen now than ever before, and today’s products contain more combinations of ingredients and higher concentrations.

Not long after, FDA scientists published studies showing that six common chemical ingredients—avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone—do indeed enter the bloodstream.

The FDA emphasizes that absorption does not mean these ingredients are unsafe. But the absorbents were above the level the FDA says exempts them from safety testing, so more research is needed.

“The big question is whether systemic absorption is really harmful,” says Kathleen Suozzi, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

The laboratory found carcinogens in dozens of sunscreens. Here’s what those findings really mean.

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

Avoid chemicals?

The FDA, the American Academy of Dermatology and independent researchers say there’s no need to stop using chemical sunscreens.

Henry W., former chairman of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Health in Michigan. “These UV filters have been used by millions of people for years and there have been no noticeable systemic effects,” says Lim. also consulted with sunscreen makers. “I still feel very comfortable saying it’s a safe way to prevent skin cancer and other sun damage.”

But some of those chemicals may be more dangerous than others. “Oxybenzone and, to a lesser extent, octinoxate emerged as the biggest concerns,” says Lim.

This is primarily because preliminary animal studies suggest that oxybenzone could theoretically interfere with the production of hormones that could affect fertility, puberty, and thyroid function. However, human sun protection studies have not raised any major concerns. For example, a 2020 review of 29 studies looking at the health effects of oxybenzone and octinoxate said more research is needed, but it also did not identify clear links to health problems.

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents not to use sunscreens containing oxybenzone on children. And people of all ages who want to avoid sunscreens with one of those chemicals can easily do so because manufacturers are now using less of them. Few of the sunscreens in our rankings contain oxybenzone and none contain octinoxate.

Sunscreens with the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide work by creating a physical barrier on your skin — not being absorbed into the skin or into the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, these mineral sunscreens may not be as effective as products with most chemical filters, Chandler says. All of the mineral sunscreens tested by CR appear to be near the middle or bottom of our rankings.

In 2022, 3.4 million Americans may be diagnosed with skin cancer

One possible reason: It takes a lot of titanium or zinc to make products with a higher SPF, Chandler says, and that’s hard to do without making the sunscreen thick, shiny and hard to rub off. Additionally, minerals sometimes build up within the product so they don’t spread evenly across the skin, leaving potential gaps in protection.

Have you tried “ref safe” products?

Some studies suggest that oxybenzone and octinoxate may threaten corals on ocean reefs and harm other marine life. Until now, this relationship has primarily been studied at high doses and in the laboratory rather than in the real world. And in a study looking at sunscreen chemicals in ocean waters, even at popular beaches, the amounts found were well below levels associated with harm in laboratory studies.

Still, the potential concern has prompted Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and some other places to ban sunscreens with the two ingredients. And some sunscreen manufacturers now label their products as “reef safe.” In most cases, this term is used when the product does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. However, the FDA does not regulate this term, so it does not have a defined meaning.

So if you want a product that doesn’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, it’s best to check the ingredients list.

Would a spray or lotion work better?

Both can do a good job if used correctly.

But using sprays can be tricky. “Droplets can become airborne, making it easier to miss areas on your skin,” says Lim. To prevent this, spray sunscreen on your palms and then rub. The next best thing is to hold the nozzle just an inch from your skin, spray it on your skin until you see a film, then rub it off.

Also make sure you don’t inhale the spray as the ingredients can irritate or damage your lungs. (That’s why CR experts say it’s best not to use sprays on children.) Spraying it on your hands can also prevent inhalation. Never spray on your face and be careful not to use sprays when it’s windy. The spray may be blown or sprayed onto your face and mouth and may not adequately cover your skin.

Do you miss sunscreen if you cover it up?

Not completely. You still need light skin. Experts point to the vast amount of research linking sun exposure to approximately 90 percent of skin cancers and the proven effectiveness of sunscreens in blocking cancer-causing UV rays.

In rare cases, dark-skinned people may develop skin cancer. But sunscreens don’t help.

But covering up means you can use less sunscreen. For example, if you wear a long-sleeved swimsuit or rash guard instead of a traditional bathing suit, you don’t need to apply sunscreen to your arms, back, and chest. This can reduce the amount of sunscreen you need to apply to your body and end up on your skin or in the ocean.

According to dermatologists, sunscreen should never be your only defense against UV rays. Try to avoid the sun being at its strongest between 10am and 4pm. And when you’re outside, especially during those hours, cover your face, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and seek shade whenever possible.

Concerns about the ingredients being absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream have prompted some researchers to look for alternatives, said Christopher Bunick, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

Researchers are looking into formulations that encapsulate the chemical sunscreen ingredients out there, allowing them to hold onto the skin and provide protection without being absorbed.

Some sunscreen ingredients used in Europe and Canada may be approved for use here. Several are stuck in the FDA approval process. “So this is a glimmer of hope that we might finally see [them] It’s used in sunscreen in the US,” says Lim.

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization working side-by-side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services and does not accept advertising. Read more at ConsumerReports.org.

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