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What you need to know about chemicals in your sunscreen

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News stories have recently raised alarms about sunscreens. Last summer, several spray sunscreens were recalled after benzene, a known carcinogen, was detected in them. Other research has shown that some sunscreen ingredients can seep through the skin into your bloodstream, and the Food and Drug Administration has asked manufacturers for more data on their safety. And Hawaii has banned certain ingredients because of concerns that they may harm ocean reefs.

With all that, you may be asking yourself whether sunscreen is still worth it.

The short answer: Absolutely. While those issues raise real concerns, at this point the risks are more theoretical than proven. Regular sunscreen use, on the other hand, clearly prevents skin cancers and saves lives. Some research suggests that it can lower the risk of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, by about 50 percent.

In addition, there are smart choices you can make to ensure that the sunscreens you choose for yourself and your family are safe and effective, and maybe better for the environment.

Why your sunscreen isn’t working

To help in that effort, Consumer Reports tests dozens of sunscreens, identifying those that work best and those that don’t protect you as well. We’ve also tested every spray sunscreen in our ratings for benzene: All were free of the harmful chemical. (Read “Benzene, a Known Carcinogen, Has Been Found in Some Spray Sunscreens, Deodorants, and Other Products” for more on benzene in aerosol personal care products.) We also delved into the research and talked with experts to understand the potential health and environmental health risks posed by some sunscreen ingredients. Here are answers to some important questions.

Recent research has led to some concerns about chemical sunscreens — those that use one or more of a dozen chemical ingredients approved for use in the United States to filter the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays.

In 2019, the FDA announced that it wanted more information on the safety of those ingredients, including whether they are absorbed systemically — through the skin into the bloodstream. That’s in part because Americans are now using a lot more sunscreen than in the past, and because today’s products contain more combinations and higher concentrations of the ingredients.

Soon after, FDA Scientists published studies showing that six common chemical ingredients — avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene and oxybenzone — do indeed get into the bloodstream.

The FDA stresses that absorption doesn’t mean these ingredients are unsafe. But the amounts absorbed were higher than the levels the FDA says would exempt them from safety testing, so more research is needed.

“The key question is whether systemic absorption actually causes harm,” says Kathleen Suozzi, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

A lab found a carcinogen in dozens of sunscreens. Here’s what those findings really mean.

Definitive answers may be years away. “Generating the type of information the FDA desires is tough, time-consuming and very expensive,” says Mark Chandler, president of ACT Solutions, which consults with sunscreen and other cosmetic manufacturers on product formulation.

Avoid chemical sunscreens?

The FDA, the American Academy of Dermatology and independent researchers say there is no need for people to stop using chemical sunscreens.

“These UV filters have been used for years by millions of people, and there have not been noticeable systemic effects,” says Henry W. Lim, a leading sunscreen researcher and former chair of the department of Dermatology at Henry Ford Health in Michigan, who has also consulted with sunscreen makers. “I still feel very comfortable saying these are a safe way to prevent skin cancer and other damage from the sun.”

But some of those chemicals may be more worrisome than others. “Oxybenzone and, to a lesser extent, octinoxate have emerged as the biggest concerns,” Lim says.

That’s primarily because preliminary research in animals suggests that oxybenzone might interfere with hormone production, which theoretically could affect fertility, puberty and thyroid function. But sunscreen research that has been done in humans has not raised any major concerns. For example, although a 2020 review of 29 studies that looked at the health effects of oxybenzone and octinoxate said more research was needed, it also did not identify clear links to any health problems.

Still, to play it safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents not use oxybenzone-containing sunscreens on children. And people of any age who want to avoid sunscreens with either of those chemicals can easily do so, because manufacturers are now using them less often. Few sunscreens in our ratings contain oxybenzone and none have octinoxate.

It’s true that sunscreens with the Minerals Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide — which work by creating a physical barrier on your skin — aren’t absorbed into the skin and don’t make their way into the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, those Mineral sunscreens might not be as effective as products with the most efficient chemical filters, Chandler says. All the Mineral sunscreens CR has tested appear near the middle or bottom of our ratings.

3.4 million Americans could be diagnosed with skin cancer in 2022

One possible reason: It takes a lot of Titanium or zinc to create a product with a high SPF, Chandler says, and it’s difficult to do that without making the sunscreen thick, gloppy and hard to rub in. In addition, the Minerals sometimes clump up in the product, so they don’t get evenly dispersed on the skin, leaving potential gaps in protection.

Try ‘reef safe’ products?

Some research suggests that oxybenzone and octinoxate may threaten coral in ocean reefs and harm other marine life. So far, that connection has primarily been studied at high doses and in the lab, not in the real world. And in research looking at sunscreen chemicals in ocean water, the amounts detected, even at popular beaches, are far below the levels linked to damage in lab studies.

Still, the potential concern has prompted Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands and some other locations to ban sunscreens with either ingredient. And some sunscreen manufacturers now label their products as “reef safe.” In most cases, the term is used when a product does not have either oxybenzone or octinoxate. But the FDA does not regulate the term, so it has no defined meaning.

So if you want a product without oxybenzone or octinoxate, your best bet is to check the ingredients list.

Does a spray or lotion work better?

Used correctly, both can do a good job.

But sprays can be tricky to apply. “The droplets can disperse into the air, making it easy to miss areas on your skin,” Lim says. To avoid that, spray sunscreen onto the palm of your hand and then rub it in. Next best is to hold the nozzle just an inch from your skin, spray until you can see a film on your skin and then rub it in.

Also take care to make sure you don’t inhale the spray, because the ingredients may irritate or even harm your lungs. (For that reason, CR’s experts say it’s best not to use sprays on kids.) Spraying it into your hand also helps prevent inhalation. Never spray directly into your face, and be careful using sprays when it’s windy. The spray can blow into your face and mouth, or disperse and not adequately cover your skin.

Skip sunscreen if you cover up?

Not previously relayed. You still need it on exposed skin. Experts point to enormous amounts of research linking sun exposure to about 90 percent of skin cancers, and the proven effectiveness of sunscreens in blocking cancer-causing UV rays.

In rare occasions, dark-skinned people can get skin cancer. But sunscreens won’t help.

But covering up means you can use far less sunscreen. For example, if you wear a long-sleeved swim shirt or rash guard instead of a traditional bathing suit, you won’t need to apply sunscreen to your arms, back and chest. That can reduce the amount of sunscreen that you need to use on your body and that might get into your skin or into the ocean.

Dermatologists say sunscreen should never be your only defense against UV rays. Try to avoid the sun at its strongest, between 10 am and 4 pm And when you are outside, especially during those hours, cover up, wear a broad-brimmed hat and seek shade when possible.

Concerns about sunscreen ingredients being absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream have prompted some researchers to look for alternatives, says Christopher Bunick, associate professor of Dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

Researchers there are exploring formulas that encapsulate chemical sunscreen ingredients, which would keep them on top of the skin and provide protection without being absorbed.

It’s also possible that some of the sunscreen ingredients used in Europe and Canada will be approved for use here. A few are stuck in the FDA approval process. “So this is a glimmer of hope that we might eventually see [them] used in sunscreens in the US,” Lim says.

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Read more at ConsumerReports.org.

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