Is Chemical Sunscreen Safe? Reviewing the FDA’s New Study

BY Wendy Rodewald-Sulz · June 4, 2019

Woman applying sunscreen - sunscreen absorption

You may have seen the breathless headlines about the FDA’s recent sunscreen study, which found that four of the most common active ingredients in chemical sunscreens absorb into the body at higher rates than previously thought.

The findings of the study (which was conducted by the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research and published in the Journal of American Medicine) sure sound alarming—who wants possibly harmful chemicals floating around in their bloodstream?

But don’t rush to toss out your entire SPF stash just yet. We spoke to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Heather D. Rogers to unpack what the news really means for your sun care routine.

What Does the New Sunscreen Study Say?

First things first: No one should stop using sunscreen to prevent skin cancer and premature aging. We know sunscreens are effective at minimizing UV damage. We also already know that chemical sunscreens are absorbed by the skin, Dr. Rogers says. “This isn’t new information.”

What wasn’t known before this new study was how much of these ingredients absorb into the body when used according to the maximum limits of the products’ directions. The study’s participants applied sunscreen over 75% of their bodies four times a day, for four days in a row—essentially the amount you’d use over the course of a beach vacation if you’re being diligent about your protection. Until now, this level of usage hadn’t been studied.

The study found that the levels of sunscreen ingredients that accumulated in the subjects’ bloodstreams exceeded the FDA’s previously recommended limits. But it didn’t say this is necessarily unsafe. “There’s no clear data showing these chemicals are bad for us,” Dr. Rogers explains. “We just know now that the amount we’re being exposed to is higher than previously thought.” The researchers’ conclusion? That more research is needed.

What Are Chemical Sunscreens?

The ingredients studied—oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule—are among the most widely used actives in chemical sunscreens, which work differently than physical or mineral sunscreens.

“Chemical sunscreens work by penetrating the skin and absorbing and breaking down UV below the skin’s surface,” explains Patricia Boland, Vice President of Research and Development at Colorescience, who has been developing formulations for nearly two decades. “Mineral (aka physical) SPF ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide work by sitting on top of the skin and scattering and reflecting the UV.” (Colorescience uses exclusively physical sunscreens in their products.)

Should You Stop Using Certain Sunscreens?

While chemical sunscreens tend to be more lightweight and transparent on skin, physical blockers are a good alternative if you’re concerned about absorption. Dr. Rogers has been a proponent of mineral-based formulas even before the new study. “Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide actually provide better sun protection from a broader UV wavelength,” she says.

The downside to physical sunscreens is the white cast some formulas can leave on skin. “I tell [my patients] that there are pros and cons to everything, and finding a good sunscreen is like finding a pair of jeans that you love,” Dr. Rogers says. “For some people, physical sunscreens really block their pores and feel heavy on their skin. For that group, if they want to use chemical sunscreen on their face, that’s very different than applying a chemical sunscreen to their body four times a day for a week.”

And not all chemical sunscreen actives are created equal. Oxybenzone, one of the four ingredients examined in the recent study, was found to absorb into the body at a rate 50 to 100 times higher than the other three chemicals. Hawaii has banned state sales of sunscreens containing oxybenzone because of concerns that the ingredient’s presence in waterways may contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs (the state banned the ingredient octinoxate for the same reason). And some sunscreen manufacturers, such as Supergoop!, avoid using oxybenzone in their formulas. The FDA has not declared oxybenzone to be unsafe; it’s been used for decades in sunscreens, and no studies to date have found it causes any adverse effects in humans. The bottom line? Your ingredient preferences are a personal choice, but protecting your skin from the sun is still a must.

What’s Next?

The FDA has called on manufacturers to do more testing on their sunscreens, just as other drugs that are absorbed into the skin must be tested and shown to be safe. And if more research leads to better formulas, it can only be a good thing for everyone’s skin. Until then, stay protected with the broad-spectrum sunscreen that works best for you.

Wendy Rodewald-Sulz

Wendy Rodewald-Sulz is Dermstore's Content Manager and a lifelong skin care and beauty devotee. She graduated from cruising the drugstore aisles for Bonne Bell lip balms as a teen to a career as a beauty editor, where she learned her antioxidants fro... Read More >