What you need to know about the chemicals in your sunscreen

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Recently, the news has raised alarm bells about sunscreens. Last summer, several spray sunscreens were recalled after benzene, a known carcinogen, was detected. Other research has shown that some sunscreen ingredients can leach through the skin into the bloodstream, and the Food and Drug Administration has asked manufacturers for more data on their safety. And Hawaii has banned certain ingredients due to concerns that they could harm ocean reefs.

With all that, you might be wondering if sunscreen is still worth it.

The short answer: Absolutely. While those issues raise real concerns, at this point the risks are more theoretical than proven. Regular use of sunscreen, on the other hand, clearly prevents skin cancers and saves lives. Some research suggests that it can reduce the risk of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, by about 50 percent.

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

Why is your sunscreen not working?

To help in that effort, Consumer Reports tests dozens of sunscreens, identifying the ones that work best and the ones that don’t protect you as well. We’ve also tested all of the spray sunscreens in our ratings for benzene—all were free of the harmful chemical. (Read “Benzene, a Known Carcinogen, Has Been Found in Some Sunscreens, Deodorants, and Other Aerosol Products” for more information on benzene in aerosol personal care products.) We also delve into the research and speak with experts to understand the potential health and environmental health risks posed by some sunscreen ingredients. Here are answers to some important questions.

Recent research has raised some concerns about chemical sunscreens, which use one or more of a dozen chemical ingredients approved for use in the United States to filter out the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

In 2019, the FDA announced that it wanted more information on the safety of those ingredients, including whether they are absorbed systemically, through the skin into the bloodstream. That’s partly because Americans now use much more sunscreen than in the past, and because today’s products contain more combinations and higher concentrations of the ingredients.

Shortly thereafter, FDA scientists published studies showing that six common chemical ingredients (avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone) do enter the bloodstream.

The FDA emphasizes that absorption does not mean these ingredients are unsafe. But the amounts absorbed were higher than the levels that the FDA said would exempt them from safety testing, so more research is needed.

“The key question is whether that systemic absorption actually causes harm,” says Kathleen Suozzi, an assistant professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

A lab found a carcinogen in dozens of sunscreens. Here’s what those findings really mean.

Definitive answers may take years. “Generating the kind of information the FDA wants is difficult, time-consuming and very expensive,” says Mark Chandler, president of ACT Solutions, which advises manufacturers of sunscreens and other cosmetics on product formulation.

Avoid chemical sunscreens?

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

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

But some of those chemicals may be more of a concern than others. “Oxybenzone and, to a lesser extent, octinoxate have become major concerns,” says Lim.

This is primarily because preliminary research in animals suggests that oxybenzone might interfere with hormone production, which could theoretically affect fertility, puberty, and thyroid function. But sunscreen research that has been done in humans has not raised any major concerns. For example, although a 2020 review of 29 studies looking at the health effects of oxybenzone and octinoxate said more research was needed, it also found no clear links to any health problems.

Still, to play it safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents not use oxybenzone-containing sunscreens on children. And people of any age who want to avoid sunscreens with any of those chemicals can easily do so, because manufacturers now use them less often. Few sunscreens in our ratings contain oxybenzone and none have octinoxate.

It is true that sunscreens with the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which work by creating a physical barrier on the skin, are not absorbed into the skin and do not reach the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, those mineral sunscreens may not be as effective as products with the most efficient chemical filters, says Chandler. All of the mineral sunscreens that CR has tested come in near the middle or bottom of our ratings.

3.4 million Americans could be diagnosed with skin cancer in 2022

One possible reason: It takes a lot of titanium or zinc to create a product with a high SPF, Chandler says, and it’s hard to do without making sunscreen thick, sticky, and hard to rub off. Additionally, minerals sometimes build up in the product, so they don’t disperse evenly on the skin, leaving potential gaps in protection.

Try ‘reef safe’ products?

Some research suggests that oxybenzone and octinoxate may threaten corals in ocean reefs and harm other marine life. Until now, that connection has been studied mostly at high doses and in the lab, not in the real world. And in research that looked at sunscreen chemicals in ocean water, the amounts detected, even on popular beaches, are well below levels linked to harm in laboratory studies.

Still, the potential concern has prompted Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands and a few other places to ban sunscreens with either ingredient. And some sunscreen manufacturers now label their products “reef safe.” In most cases, the term is used when a product does not have oxybenzone or octinoxate. But the FDA doesn’t regulate the term, so it doesn’t have a defined meaning.

So if you want a product without oxybenzone and octinoxate, your best bet is to check the ingredient list.

Does a spray or lotion work better?

Used correctly, both can do a good job.

But sprays can be tricky to apply. “The droplets can be dispersed in the air, making it easy to miss areas of skin,” says Lim. To prevent that, he sprays sunscreen on the palm of his hand and then rubs it in. It’s best to hold the nozzle just an inch from your skin, spray until you can see a film on your skin, and then rub it in.

Also be careful not to inhale the spray, as the ingredients can irritate or even damage your lungs. (For that reason, CR experts say it’s best not to use sprays on children.) Spraying it on your hand also helps prevent inhalation. Never spray directly on the face and be careful when using sprays in windy weather. The spray can blow into your face and mouth, or spread out and not adequately cover your skin.

Skip sunscreen if you cover up?

Not completely. You still need it on exposed skin. Experts point to a wealth of research linking sun exposure to about 90 percent of skin cancers and the proven effectiveness of sunscreens in blocking cancer-causing UV rays.

Rarely, dark-skinned people can develop skin cancer. But sunscreens won’t help.

But covering up means you can use a lot less sunscreen. For example, if you wear a long-sleeved swim shirt or rash guard instead of a traditional swimsuit, you won’t need to apply sunscreen to your arms, back, and chest. That can reduce the amount of sunscreen you need to use on your body that could get on your skin or into the ocean.

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

Concerns about the absorption of sunscreen ingredients through the skin and bloodstream have prompted some researchers to look for alternatives, says Christopher Bunick, an associate professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.

Researchers are exploring formulas that encapsulate the chemical ingredients of sunscreens, which would keep them on the skin and provide protection without being absorbed.

It is also possible that some of the sunscreen ingredients used in Europe and Canada are approved for use here. Some are stuck in the FDA approval process. “So this is a ray of hope that we may eventually see [them] used in sunscreens in the US,” says Lim.

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

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