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Sunscreen Ingredients: Clarifying the Confusion

Sunscreen provides vital protection year-round against the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, which are linked to the skin’s premature aging, sunburn and a person’s risk of developing skin cancer.

But news headlines lately have shed light on the potential harm of sunscreen ingredients to coral reefs, fueling possible confusion among consumers seeking to protect themselves against UV rays. Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants more testing done on other ingredients which could pose risks to sunscreen users.

Out of environmental concerns, Key West officials voted recently to ban the sale of sunscreens containing certain chemicals — oxybenzone and octinoxate — linked to coral reef bleaching. The ban is set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. Miami Beach officials are considering a similar ban. Officials from both cities say there are alternatives to oxybenzone and octinoxate used in sunscreens that consumers can purchase. For now, up to 70 percent of sunscreens sold in the U.S. contain oxybenzone, and up to 8 percent contain octinoxate.

Keep Using Sunscreens, FDA and Doctors Say
Dermatologists have opposed the bans against these sunscreen chemicals. They argue that any limitations on sunscreens could discourage their use and increase skin cancer rates. Last year, the state of Hawaii also banned the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate because they can cause damage to coral reefs.

At this time, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) considers the active ingredients in both types of commercially available sunscreens — referred to as “physical sunscreens” and “chemical sunscreens” — as generally safe and effective for users. But the FDA recently took a step toward updating regulatory requirements [1] for most sunscreen products in the United States, intensifying the confusion even further.

An FDA-funded study [2], published in May, found that some sunscreen [3] ingredients — including avobenzone and oxybenzone — were absorbed into the bloodstreams of study participants at potentially toxic levels. FDA officials stressed that sunscreen ingredients are safe. However, the agency wants more testing performed on ingredients. For now, the FDA and dermatologists are urging the public to continue using sunscreens to protect themselves against the sun’s UV rays.

The study came after the agency’s February 2019 proposed rule to update regulations on sunscreens [4]. The agency stated that two key sunscreen ingredients — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — are safe and requested more information from the sunscreen industry about the safety data of 12 other sunscreen ingredients. Dermatologists recommend sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Over-the-counter sunscreen drug products are regulated by the FDA under the Sunscreen Innovation Act, an expedited process put in place in 2014. Certain ingredients can be marketed without going through the new FDA approval process because they are generally considered to be safe. The proposed regulation would allow for some ingredients to continue to be sold without new drug approvals, but others may need approval.

Here’s what you need to know:

Two Types of Sunscreens: ‘Physical’ and ‘Chemical’ Blockers

Physical sunscreens work like a shield, sitting sit on the surface of your skin and deflecting the sun’s rays, according to the American Academy of Dermatology [5] (AAD). They contain the active ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide — both of which have been deemed safe to use by the FDA. Dermatologists say you should use this sunscreen if you have sensitive skin.

Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the sun’s UV rays, says the AAD. These products contain one or more of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. This list includes the two ingredients that purportedly harm coral reefs: oxybenzone and octinoxate. These formulations tend to be easier to rub into the skin without leaving a white residue. The FDA last month stated that there is “insufficient safety data” on most of these chemicals and that is prompting the agency’s renewed regulatory campaign.

The FDA’s stepped-up oversight will likely focus on chemical sunscreens ingredients. But dermatologists stress that the all sunscreen ingredients have been deemed safe to use and they don’t want people to stop wearing sunscreen.

What to Look for When Shopping for Sunscreens

Dermatologists recommend sunscreens with broad-spectrum coverage, an SPF of 30 or higher, and water and/or sweat resistance (if using it for water activities or in high temperatures). Consult with your doctor regarding sunscreen protection, especially if you have an underlying skin-related health issue or other concerns.

“If you see zinc or titanium dioxide on the sunscreen’s list of ingredients, that is a physical blocker and what it does is actually reflect the sun’s rays off of your skin,” explains Janelle Vega, M.D. [6], a dermatologist affiliated with Baptist Health South Florida. “If you’re looking at a chemical blocker, they absorb the sun’s rays and scatter them in your skin so you don’t burn — but you’re also absorbing sun. So, what I like to say to patients with disorders that are sensitive to heat — such as melasma, which is a disorder of hyper-pigmentation that can cause  gray-brown patches — is that they stick to physical blockers because the absorbing of the energy (sun’s rays) can create heat.”

Ideally, parents should avoid exposing babies younger than 6 months to the sun’s rays, according to the AAD. Parents of infants and toddlers 6 months and older may apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, dermatologists say.

Other Precautions You Can Take to Prevent Sun Overexposure

In addition to properly applying sunscreen, taking other precautions that can help prevent overexposure to the sun include: