Are Sunscreens Safe?

Sunscreens are an important way to protect your skin from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light. They are recommended by virtually all dermatologists and are a mainstay in the prevention of long-term effects of sun damage, like skin aging and skin cancers. Sunscreens are available over the counter, lending to the impression that they are safe to use. However, are sunscreens without their own risks? Recently, public attention has been drawn to some concerns involving sunscreens. What are these concerns and do they have any validity?

Sunscreens Come in Two Flavors

There are two main categories for sunscreens: chemical sunscreens and physical sunscreens. The manner in which they protect your skin from ultraviolet radiation is very different. Physical sunscreens sit on the skin to create a barrier that directly blocks ultraviolet light from getting in. Physical sunscreens are those that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Whereas chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin and use organic substances to scatter and absorb the ultraviolet radiation like a sponge. The long complicated names on the active ingredient list like avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone (among others) indicate a chemical sunscreen. In addition, sunscreens can often have a combination of both physical and chemical ingredients.

Some Chemicals in Sunscreens Are Found in the Bloodstream

While sunscreen does great work on the skin, does it stay there or does some of it gets absorbed into the body? Some research has demonstrated that common chemical sunscreens find themselves in the bloodstream at elevated levels. These include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule. In animal studies, some research has indicated that chemical sunscreen components may act as an endocrine disrupter: a chemical that interferes with the function of hormones. However, these findings have not been well substantiated in humans.

Cancer-Causing Agents in Sunscreens

A recent study found the harmful cancer-causing agent benzene in numerous sunscreens. An independent pharmacy called Valisure LLC recently tested and detected a cancer-causing agent known as benzene in 78 sunscreen and after-care skin products. Several Aveeno and Neutrogena sunscreens have recently been pulled from the market due to this substance being detected. Benzene is not the main ingredient in sunscreens but is likely a by-product of the manufacturing process. Some of the worst offenders in the report were spray sunscreens, possibly indicating the propellant as a source. However, the vast majority of products tested contained no benzene. Still, one should avoid any exposure to benzene and refrain from the use of aerosolized sunscreens.

Environmental Effects of Chemical Sunscreens

Some active ingredients in sunscreens may have environmental effects. Oxybenzone has been tied to coral reef bleaching, which has prompted coastal areas such as Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands, Key West, Florida (and more) to ban the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Organic sunscreen ingredients have been found in water sources and aquatic animals worldwide and many of the long-term effects are still unknown.

The Benefits of Sunscreen Use Outweigh the Risks

After a discussion of the cons of sunscreens, it must be emphasized that the use of sunscreens is still recommended as a means of sun protection. One should practice good sun protection hygiene, including sun protective clothing and avoidance of prolonged sun exposure, especially during peak ultraviolet periods between 10 am and 4 pm. Use of a non-spray mineral-based sunscreen containing zinc or titanium is preferred for sun-exposed areas. Rates of deadly skin cancers like melanoma have been increasing steadily in all age groups. Exposure to ultraviolet light is a significant contributor to skin cancer development.

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