I was halfway through writing my annual ‘be careful with chemical sunscreens’ post when a few of you sent me this article. I want to do a deep dive into this article, so this is gonna be a two part post. In the next one, I’ll throw some science around, but for this one, I want to focus on the deeply f**ked up situation at hand.
Before I get started, here is some vocab. Every single time I talk about chemical sunscreens, some asshole feels the need to pipe up with ‘um, everything’s a chemical.’ While I applaud their efforts to make themselves look smart, it doesn’t make you look smart to not know that there are different types of sunscreens. There are different ways to block UV absorption. One is by creating a physical barrier that UV cannot penetrate. These are called ‘physical blockers,’ and are either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, or both. Another is through chemical means. These are called ‘chemical sunscreens.’ Chemical sunscreens include but are not limited to compounds such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, and OM-cinnamate.
Let’s do this! Here’s the skinny: a branch of the FDA conducted tests on volunteers who applied roughly double the amount of chemical sunscreen suggested, and their blood was tested to see if the sunscreens were present. So far, so good. This test was performed by the FDA in order to convince the manufacturers of the sunscreens to do studies to determine whether there are health risks from these chemicals entering the bloodstream. Sounds nice, right? *Let’s break this down, shall we? Chemical sunscreens are in use and have been in use for 20 GODDAMN YEARS, and the FDA did this study to try to convince the manufacturers to check to see whether they were causing health problems. TO TRY TO CONVINCE THEM TO TEST TO SEE IF THEIR CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS WERE MAKING PEOPLE SICK. Not banning the use of them until this can be determined, mind you. Not REQUIRING the companies to prove their chemical sunscreens are safe. Nope. Just a gentle ‘hey, look at this, maybe you should run some tests?’
Okay, if you’re not riled up yet, hold on to your butts. They ran the tests and found that these chemical sunscreens did, in fact, enter the bloodstream, that the levels rose with use, and that the compounds stayed in the bloodstream for 24 hours. In fact, one of the sunscreens, oxybenzone, was absorbed 50-100X more than the other sunscreens tested. Oxybenzone is a fun little molecule that has a potential link to hormonal changes in men and to shorter pregnancies and lower birth weights, has been found in breast milk, is damaging to coral reefs, and has been replaced in the EU by safer, less controversial sunscreens. In the US, it is estimated to be in ~75% of sunscreen products.
So what is the FDA’s response you ask? Are they banning these compounds until safety testing can be done? Are they encouraging folks to avoid these compounds until safety testing can be done? Are they penalizing the manufacturers for not testing these compounds? Nope, nope, and nope. In fact, FDA dude encourages you to keep on using sunscreen, even chemical ones. In a nutshell: ‘hey, we found this alarming behavior by these chemical sunscreens that are in a dizzying array of sunscreen, moisturizer, and cosmetics, but don’t worry, even though we have zero idea what these chemicals do once they’re in the bloodstream, we want you to keep on using them.’ While I acknowledge that these chemical sunscreens may end up being completely inert in the body, I would like to know that for sure before I apply it to my skin several times a day, every day.
Those of you with nursing infants or small children, I implore you to avoid these chemical sunscreens altogether. If it’s in your breast milk, or in the sunscreen you apply to your children, it’s important to be aware that babies and children absorb chemicals differently than adults. Not only that, but there is zero info on what these compounds do in a developing system.
The issue with product safety is the fault of both the manufacturers making these products as cheaply as possible with little concern for human health and safety, as well as with the complete lack of government oversight. Given that we cannot compete with armies of lawyers and cosmetic lobbyists to change the law around cosmetic ingredient safety that has not been updated since it was passed in 1938, we have to educate ourselves about what we should and should not put on our skin, and give our money to companies selling product free of potentially hazardous ingredients. I want to stress a second time that it is possible these compounds do nothing in the bloodstream. We have no idea though. This post is meant as another wakeup call that there is nothing preventing companies from using ingredients that can be dangerous in skincare and cosmetics. You can call me a kook all day, you can claim everything is perfectly safe, but the fact that millions of us are being encouraged to apply compounds known to enter the bloodstream, but we have no idea what happens once they’re there should make even the most staunch ally of Big Skincare & Cosmetics pause.
To make it easier for you to determine what sunscreens are in your product, look on the label. Under ‘active ingredients,’ it will list the sunscreens present. If it isn’t zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, it’s a chemical sunscreen.