The Latest on Sunscreen Safety

Sunscreen

FDA is currently examining the effects of certain chemicals in sunscreen and considering changing regulations

By Melissa Stefanec

Sunscreen has been in the news a lot lately. Questions about the safety of some common sunscreen ingredients plastered many headlines last year. The news was the result of two actions by the FDA. In February 2019, the FDA issued a proposed rule that would update regulatory requirements for most sunscreens. In May 2019, they released an updated study to support their proposition. This left many consumers wondering if sunscreen was safe.

The resounding answer is that sunscreen is an effective way to present your skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. However, as with many topical ointments, some ingredients in sunscreen can be absorbed through your skin and make their way into your body. The FDA is currently examining the effects of those chemicals and considering changing sunscreen regulations.

If all of this has you wondering how to enjoy the sun this season, here are some common questions and answers regarding sunscreen. Answers to these questions are sourced from the FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

 Is sunscreen effective and why should I wear it?

Sunscreen is scientifically proven to accomplish two things. First, it decreases your risk of developing skin cancers, such as squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Second, regular sunscreen use can help prevent premature skin aging caused by the sun. It can help you fight wrinkles, sagging and age spots.

What’s the difference between a chemical and mineral sunscreen?

Chemical sunscreens are the ones most people are familiar with; think of coconuts and puppies pulling on a toddler’s bathing suit. These sunscreens act like a sponge to absorb the sun’s rays so your skin doesn’t have to. Mineral sunscreens are also known as physical sunscreens. These sunscreens form a physical barrier between you and the sun and block out the ultraviolet light.

Why are people questioning the safety of sunscreen?

The FDA is looking at a number of ingredients commonly used in sunscreens, examining how the body absorbs these ingredients, and determining how that absorption affects individuals.

What ingredients are being investigated by the FDA?

The FDA proposed rule, issued in February 2019, is aimed at bringing over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreens up to date with the latest scientific standards. The FDA wants to establish final marketing requirements for sunscreens. As part of this rule, the FDA has asked industry and other interested parties for additional safety data on 12 active sunscreen ingredients currently available in marketed products.

What are those 12 ingredients?

Ingredients commonly used in sunscreen sold in the United States include: ensulizole, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, oxybenzone and avobenzone.

Ingredients not frequently used in the United States include: Cinoxate, dioxybenzone, meradimate, padimate O and sulisobenzone.

What are other ways to protect myself from the sun?

If you aren’t comfortable with repeated sunscreen application, there are other things you can do to protect yourself from the sun. You can avoid the sun when its rays are strongest, typically between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. You can also wear protective clothing that blocks the sun’s rays. Look for clothing that has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF).

Should I use spray, stick or lotion sunscreen?

All of these sunscreens are deemed safe by the FDA, assuming you apply them properly. The AAD recommends applying stick sunscreens in four passes and rubbing it in after application. If you want to use a spray sunscreen, you should use the following measures: 1) Hold the nozzle close to your skin and spray generously; 2) rub it into your skin thoroughly; 3) avoid inhaling the spray; 4) avoid using spray sunscreen on windy days;  and 5) never apply spray sunscreen near heat or open flame, or while smoking.

I’m very worried about sunscreen safety. What are some safer options?

The FDA is proposing that two ingredients be labeled as GRASE — titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These ingredients are often used in mineral sunscreens.

What are GRASE ingredients?

GRASE in acronym meaning “generally recognized as safe and effective.” In order for the FDA to make a GRASE determination, a drug must satisfy three criteria: 1) the drug must have been subjected to adequate and well-controlled clinical investigations that establish the product as safe and effective; 2) those investigations must have been published in the scientific literature available to qualified experts; and 3) experts must generally agree, based on those published studies, that the product is safe and effective for its intended uses.

Do any of my sunscreens contain ingredients that aren’t GRASE?

If your sunscreen was legally sold in the United States, its ingredients are GRASE. Some sunscreen sold outside of the United States includes PABA and trolamine salicylate, which the FDA doesn’t consider GRASE.

What are the dangers of not wearing sunscreen?

If you expose your skin to the sun and don’t wear protective clothing, you are exposed to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. This can greatly increase your risk of deadly cancers. Sunscreen, when used properly, is a great way to protect your skin and your life. Given the recognized benefits of sunscreen use, the FDA, “strongly advises all Americans to continue to use sunscreens in conjunction with other sun protective measures.”

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