For years you have seen the warnings about too much exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight, and your risks of long-term damage to your skin. UV radiation damages your skin cells at the molecular level, causing premature aging, pigment changes like freckles and age spots, and ultimately a higher risk of skin cancer.
So you have been in the habit of slathering on sunscreen when you spend time out in the sun. You assumed, as virtually everyone has assumed, that sunscreens are safe, at least as long as you don’t drink them!
Thus you may have been understandably alarmed when you saw the news of a recent study that found that the active ingredients in many sunscreens are actually absorbed through the skin and can be found in measurable levels in the bloodstream.
Should you toss out the Coppertone? No! The known risks of skin damage and skin cancer far outweigh the possible risk of the chemicals in sunscreen.
Understanding the Sunscreen Study Results
First, it’s important to understand that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules were different when sunscreens came onto the American market in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a topical over-the-counter medication, sunscreens were not closely studied or regulated. One reason for the recent study is that in the last few decades, scientists have gained a deeper understanding of the possibility of drug absorption through the skin, and it was decided to research this in relation to sunscreens.
The study that was performed is called a maximal usage trial (MUsT). As the name implies, a MUsT study looks at what happens when a product is used at its maximum level. In this case, the participants applied one of the four products in the study, over 75% of their body four times per day for four days in a row. So this is looking at a more intense sunscreen usage than most of us experience in real life.
While the blood tests did show that the active ingredients could be found in the bloodstream, it is very important to recognize that this does NOT mean that the ingredients are unsafe. Many substances, natural and artificial, in the environment find their way into our bodies through skin absorption, without having any harmful effect. The main outcome of the study is a recommendation that there be further studies to make sure that the ingredients do not have any bad effects.
Should You Still Use Sunscreen?
If you think about it, a lot of people have been smearing a lot of sunscreen on their skin for over fifty years now. If there were obvious dire consequences, experience, and data would both have shown it. So even though there will be more research, most scientists believe that sunscreens are still safe to use.
What we know DOES have dire consequences, however, is too much exposure to ultraviolet sunlight. Compared to a possible but as yet unknown risk from the sunscreen, the risk of skin cancer is well documented and serious. Skin cancers are more common than any other form of cancer — in fact, there have been more cases of skin cancer in the last three decades than all other kinds of cancer combined!
Most skin cancers are easily treatable with minor outpatient procedures. However, removal can still be painful and sometimes disfiguring. And almost 100,000 cases of skin cancer each year turn out to be melanoma, a much more serious form of skin cancer that can spread to other areas of the body. Melanoma requires more intensive treatment, often involving radiation and/or chemotherapy, and causes over 7,000 deaths per year.
The good news is that skin cancer is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer, with the highest risk being exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Therefore, it’s important to continue to protect your skin against sun exposure.
How to Protect Your Skin from Ultraviolet Radiation
While you should still continue to use sunscreen, you can use other approaches to help reduce your exposure to both UV radiation and possible risks from some sunscreens. UV-protective clothing has become widely available, and swimsuits and outdoor wear that incorporate more skin coverage with breathable and flexible fabrics are popular. UV-protective clothing minimizes the amount of your skin that you would need to put sunscreen on.
Another option is to use sunscreens that reflect rather than absorb UV light. The sunscreens that were found to absorb through the skin into the bloodstream are based on organic chemicals that absorb UV radiation. Other sunscreens are made of inorganic ingredients that work by reflecting UV light, like the bright white sunscreen that you often see on lifeguards’ noses.
In the study, the active ingredients in these sunscreens did not absorb into the bloodstream. So if you have concerns, look for sunscreens that have zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient.
The fact that some sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed through the skin in high enough levels to show up in blood tests is concerning, and it’s important that research continues. However, the risk from these chemicals is unknown and likely not nearly as high as the risk of skin cancer from going without sun protection. So yes, you should continue to use sunscreen!
The following peer-reviewed article is referred to in this post:
Sunscreen Application, Safety, and Sun Protection: The Evidence. Li H, Colantonio S, Dawson A, Lin X, Beecker J. J Cutan Med Surg. 2019 Jul/Aug;23(4):357-369. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1203475419856611