6 common sunscreen chemicals aren’t safe even by FDA standards

Sunscreen is so important for protecting yourself from skin cancer and skin aging. There’s no denying that. Heck, I wear sunscreen on my face and neck every day (even in the winter when the likelihood of me getting any sun is pretty slim) for those very reasons.

But sunscreen is far from perfect…

Conventional sunscreens are filled with chemicals. Based on what the FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology have always told us, these chemicals are safe. At least, in the doses we’re exposed to them in sunscreen. But I have my doubts. And I’m not the only one…

FDA researchers are starting to question the safety of conventional sunscreen too because their studies keep showing that our exposure to sunscreen chemicals is actually far higher than even they think is safe…

These sunscreen chemicals are seeping into your blood at dangerous levels

Researchers from the FDA have taken a closer look at six common chemicals in sunscreen sprays and lotions: octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone. What they found is alarming…

The FDA’s safe threshold for these chemicals is 0.5 nanograms (ng) per milliliter (mL) of blood plasma. They tested sunscreens containing these chemicals on 48 people, and guess what? Their blood concentration of these chemicals was higher than that. In fact, one of the chemicals — oxybenzone — had blood concentrations 360 times higher than the FDA’s safety threshold.

Even worse, blood concentrations of these chemicals stayed above the threshold for a long time —anywhere from seven to 21 days. Octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone stayed high for seven days after use. Homosalate and oxybenzone were still too high 21 days later.

Why is this worrisome? Well, there are a few reasons…

  • Research shows oxybenzone can potentially cause cell damage that could contribute to skin cancer.
  • In a 2017 study, octocrylene damaged DNA in aquatic animals.
  • According to another 2017 study, avobenzone mixed with chlorine (the stuff found abundantly in swimming pools) has toxic effects on the kidney and liver.

Many of these chemicals are also linked to hormone disruption, which makes them endocrine disruptors. They can cause trouble from reproductive problems to thyroid diseases.

But even though these ingredients are under FDA scrutiny, they’ve not yet decided to ban them. According to information a the Environmental Working Group site, the FDA proposes these ingredients are “not generally recognized as safe and effective due to insufficient data.”

The secret to safer sun protection

As scary as this all is, I’m not going to tell you to chuck your sunscreen. There’s too much evidence that protecting yourself from UV exposure reduces your risk of skin cancer. I am going to tell you to look for a safer type of sun protection…

There are UV filters with a lower risk of toxicity. Two of them are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. But you’ll need to pay attention to more than the active ingredients in your sunscreen. Inactive ingredients like the vitamin A derivative retinyl palmitate and parabens come with serious health baggage too.

So, before you purchase another bottle of sunscreen, I recommend looking at the Environmental Working Group’s safe sunscreen database to find an option that protects you from the sun without putting you at risk for other health concerns.

Oh, and eat more grapes for an added layer of protection, in addition to practicing sensible sun exposure. Multiple studies have found that eating grapes protected against UV skin damage, increased resistance to sunburn and reduced cellular markers of UV damage

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  1. Sunscreens leach up to 360 times more toxic chemicals into the blood than the FDA allows, raising risks for liver and kidney failure, study finds —The Daily Mail
  2. Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active IngredientsJAMA
  3. The Trouble With Ingredients in Sunscreens — Environmental Working Group
  4. Is sunscreen bad for you — The Cleveland Clinic
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.