There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the health and safety of sunscreen lately. Mostly it is the result of a recent FDA study, which you might have seen in the news. This study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that chemicals in sunscreen were absorbed into the bloodstream at levels potentially much higher than previously believed. This definitely sounds scary, but what are the implications for you? In this post, I’ll give my take on these findings and then share why I think people are overlooking a really simple, no-fuss, controversy-free form of sun protection.
Unpacking the FDA Sunscreen Study
First and foremost, know that the authors of this study are NOT saying you should stop wearing sunscreen. We’ve known for a long time that chemicals in sunscreen can be absorbed through the skin. What this study did show was that these chemicals stayed in the subjects’ blood for about a week after they stopped applying sunscreen and that concentrations continued to rise over the course of the study. People were understandably concerned when they read these headlines, but it’s important to put the information into context. First of all, the fact that an ingredient ends up in our bodies does not inherently mean that it is toxic or harmful. Second, this study was done under maximal use conditions, meaning subjects applied the amount of sunscreen you actually need to reach the SPF rating on the label. This amount is 2 mg of sunscreen per cm^2. To give you an idea, that’s at least a very full shot glass of sunscreen, depending on the surface area of your body. That’s a lot more than most people generally use, and these subjects applied that amount four times a day for four consecutive days before their blood was tested. Now don’t get me wrong, this is definitely the amount of sunscreen you should be wearing if you’re walking around on a beach all day in a bathing suit, but for must of us, that’s not what a typical day looks like. The sample size for this study was also very small, and there were so many factors that weren’t controlled for: how the sunscreen was delivered (spray, lotion or cream), water exposure and how active the participants were, to name a few.
How Do I Know if Ingredients Are Safe?
Remember that this was by no means the first time these ingredients were tested for safety. Sunscreens in the U.S. are regulated as a drug, not a cosmetic. This means they’ve already undergone rigorous testing for safety and efficacy and there are always people working behind the scenes to make sure products continue to be safe for personal use. In fact, what this study should bring to light for you, the consumer, is that it proves that chemists, doctors, and scientific researchers are working passionately to make sure we know everything about the safety of the compounds we put into and onto our bodies. What most people don’t often think about is that these researchers are motivated by a pursuit of the truth, but also by personal ambition. Much like an actor wants to win an Oscar, a chemist or researcher would love to be credited with an important discovery that would help keep people safe and garner recognition.
For me, being in the skincare industry, it’s part of my job to stay on top of new findings that are relevant to your health and safety, and to provide you with accurate information to the best of my knowledge. I am always researching this, and at the end of the day, I also want to be safe. If there was something alarming to me, I would certainly be talking about it. Read the post I recently wrote on clean beauty and the safety of ingredients in skincare.
So, What’s Next?
Bottom line, this study did NOT show that chemicals in sunscreen are dangerous to our health. It showed that they can be absorbed into our blood at levels that triggered FDA requirements for more safety data. This basically means that, going forward, manufacturers will have to perform tests and provide the FDA with better data so researchers can make sure these ingredients are safe for long-term, daily use. The FDA is also looking into updating its regulatory requirements for sunscreen, including how it is labeled. As always, I will continue to update you and share information as it becomes available. In the meantime, keep wearing sunscreen. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., and the dangers of overexposure to the sun are well-documented. Sunscreen is a key component of protecting yourself from UV damage and should always be used, along with other sun protection measures.
If you’re still worried about using sunscreen, note that this study only considered chemical sunscreens. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide—the minerals used in physical sunscreens—have been designated by the FDA as GRASE (Generally Regarded as Safe and Effective). While I believe the most effective sunscreens are those that use a combination of both chemical and physical blockers, you can certainly find sunscreens that use only physical blockers. Learn more about the difference between chemical and physical sunscreen.
Why You Should Really be Using Sun Protective Clothing
As I said, the results of this study don’t mean you should stop using sunscreen, and I will certainly continue to use it myself. But if you’re really concerned about topical application of sunscreen, consider clothing as a way to protect yourself. I have always been a huge proponent of sun-protective clothing. A mistake I often see people making is that they rely on sunscreen as their first (or even only) line of defense against sun damage. This mentality is common. People think, “I’m wearing sunscreen, so I can be out in the sun as much as I want and I’ll be protected.” Trust me, this is not the case, and acting like it is will put you at risk for premature photo-aging, or worse, skin cancer. Read about my personal experience with skin cancer.
In order to effectively protect yourself against harmful UV rays, you really need to be looking at the bigger picture when it comes to sun protection. Here are three steps you can follow that (along with using sunscreen) will always keep you protected.
Use UPF Clothing
Any clothing that covers your skin is a step in the right direction. But if you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors (think hiking or a day at the beach), take it further by wearing clothes that actually have a UPF rating. UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor, and the ratings typically range anywhere from 15-50. The higher the rating, the better the sun protection (it’s basically SPF for clothes). The white hat and shirt I’m wearing in the picture above are both UPF rated! Some of my favorite sun protection clothing brands are Cover and Sun Precautions.
I’ve always preferred sun protective clothing as my first line of defense when I know I’ll be outside for a long time. It’s so much easier than constantly re-applying sunscreen, and you don’t have to worry about uneven application leaving parts of your skin vulnerable. Speaking of which, read about this one piece of clothing I never wear.
Wear Hats and Sunglasses
Hats and sunglasses are an extension of sun protective clothing. Sun hats can also have UPF ratings and are a great, easy way to protect the delicate skin on your face and neck. Be sure to pick a hat with a brim that goes all the way around and extends out far enough to give you good coverage. A good brand for sun hats is Wallaroo—they’re relatively affordable and have high UPF ratings.
Everyone knows the eye area is the first to show signs of aging. This is because the skin in that area is so thin, which also makes it susceptible to skin cancer. Wearing sunglasses that cover the whole orbital area is a good way to minimize your risk. It also keeps you from squinting, which leads to fine lines and wrinkles.
Avoid Peak Sun Hours
These can be different depending on where you live, but the general rule is from 10 am to 4 pm. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go outside at all, it just means you should avoid prolonged, direct sun exposure and stay protected.
Why Seeking Out Shade Isn’t Enough
A lot of people might rely on an umbrella for sun protection during a day at the beach, but the shade does NOT equal sunscreen. You’re still exposed to UV rays that cause premature skin aging and skin cancer. In the picture above where I’m at the beach, I’m wearing a UPF shirt as I mentioned, but I made sure to put sunscreen on my legs knowing they were exposed to UV rays despite the shade.
So there you have it. Doing these three things in conjunction with wearing sunscreen will ensure you stay protected! I hope this information expands your idea of what safe sun protection looks like and clears up any confusion or concern you may have had about the recent FDA study.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”