Could Your Sunscreen Be Dangerous? A Guide for Safely Protecting Your Family This Summer

Published June 7th, 2020 by Dr. Betsy Hoida, PharmD, BCPS
Fact Checked by

Picture this scenario. You have been cooped up inside your house, "homeschooling" your children since March. You are looking forward to school ending, for an opportunity to get outside and get some sunshine…letting your brood hash out their problems in the open air.

You order bathing suits (guessing at sizes because you can't try anything on), a couple of new beach towels, and finally last on your list is sunscreen.  This part of summer shopping always stresses you out. You feel like there are WAY too many choices.

You type "safest sunscreens" in your search engine and.... results like "New Study Raises Safety Concerns About Sunscreens" or "Is Your Sunscreen Safe" start to raise your hackles.

You feel you have been on "high alert" due to everything going on in our world lately- your mental health compromised- now you can't even find a SAFE SUNSCREEN??

Keep reading to learn the latest safety information published and how you can make the best choice to protect your family this summer. 

Studies from the FDA

Two studies released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the past year found that some active ingredients which block UV rays in sunscreen remain in the bloodstream for an extended period. Sometimes, only after one use.

But "absorption does not equal risk," the findings aren't necessarily saying that these ingredients are unsafe. They are just asking the industry to provide more information before they can be “recognized as generally safe and effective."

Before discussing how this impacts your family’s safety, you need to understand sunscreen basics.

How Sunscreen Works

Sunscreen protects against ultraviolet (UV) radiation. There are two main types of UV rays.

1)    UVA - rays that cause tanning and premature signs of aging and wrinkles

2)    UVB - rays that cause sunburn

The best type of sunscreen is one that blocks both types of rays, offering broad-spectrum protection. 

Sunscreens also have something called SPF on the label. SPF (or sun protection factor) tells you how long it would take for your skin to sunburn if you applied the products exactly as directed compared to if you didn't use any product at all.

For example, a bottle of "kids" SPF 50 sunscreen gives the following directions "reapply after 80 minutes of swimming or sweating at least every 2 hours”. This time allows the active ingredients to absorb onto the skin.

You should also apply sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure. Of note, a common misconception is “the higher the SPF, the more protected you are." This belief is not necessarily true, as no sunscreen protects 100%, your best bet is to stick with a product with at least SPF 30 and reapply often (products over SPF 50 do not offer any additional benefit…just more chemicals).

There are two different ways the ingredients in sunscreen can protect you

1)     Physical ingredients - provide a barrier to protect your skin. These are also known as “mineral” based compounds.

a.     This type is an excellent choice for those with sensitive skin

b.     Examples include titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both 

2)    Chemically based - absorb the rays before the sun reaches your skin.

a.     These sunscreens are easier to apply to the skin.

b.     Examples include one or more of the following ingredients, oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate.

The chemically-based ingredients are where questions of safety have been raised.

The Ingredients in Question

Two ingredients, namely oxybenzone and avobenzone, are part of a group of chemically based products that the FDA would like the sunscreen industry to provide more information on.  

The EWG (Environmental Working Group), a nonprofit healthcare advocacy agency, recently published its 14th Annual Guide to Sunscreens, where they express concerns regarding oxybenzone potential for hormone disruption, allergic reactions, and skin absorption.

Your skin is the body's largest organ, and what you put on it is at risk of being absorbed into the bloodstream. Therefore, the FDA is asking for more data regarding this absorption and what role it plays in affecting your overall health.

While this information is worth investigating, the bottom line is the benefit far outweighs the risk of not using sunscreen at all.

Take-Home Points for Sunscreen Safety

1)    Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen (with an SPF factor of minimum 30) that can be applied every 2 hours, with reapplication after swimming and sweating.

2)     During the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., the sun's rays are the strongest. Look for ways to find shade and take a break from play.

3)    Dress your family in clothing that provides a physical barrier. Choose rash guard swimwear, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses.

4)    Apply sunscreen on all parts of the body that are not covered by a physical barrier.

5)    Use sunscreen on all members of your family except babies under the age of 6 months. For this age group, look for physical barriers or shade.

You have had enough to worry about lately. Go and enjoy the fun and relaxation typically associated with hot summer days. Your best bet is to choose a sunscreen that you will use.

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