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As the summer season approaches, sunscreen has become a hot topic in the news. A recent study by the FDA has brought sunscreen into the media spotlight, questioning the safety of certain chemicals commonly used in some sunscreens.

The FDA’s recent study looked at 4 chemical ingredients used in sunscreen. The results of that study found these chemicals to be absorbed into the body in amounts that call for additional study into their safety. The authors of the study state that: “These results do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen.” Meanwhile, the FDA has proposed new regulations that would require manufacturers to provide more data on the safety of a dozen different chemical ingredients used in sunscreen.

The Backstory

In 2008, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) wrote a scathing criticism of the FDA for its inaction in regulating certain chemicals used in sunscreen products, stating:

“The Food and Drug Administration has failed miserably in its duty to protect the public from toxic chemicals like oxybenzone in personal care products. At the request of industry lobbyists… the agency has delayed final sunscreen safety standards for nearly 30 years. FDA issued a new draft of the standards last October under pressure from EWG, but continues to delay finalizing them at the behest of the regulated industry.

According to the EWG, scientists from CDC published results in 2008 showing that oxybenzone readily absorbs into the body and was present in 97% of Americans tested. Oxybenzone was detected in the urine of nearly every study participant. Typically, women and girls had higher levels of oxybenzone in their bodies than men and boys, likely a result of differences in use of body care products including sunscreens.

Also in 2008, a companion study revealed that mothers with high levels of oxybenzone in their bodies were more likely to give birth to underweight baby girls. Low birth weight is a critical risk factor linked to coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases in adulthood.

The EWG concluded their 2008 statement by saying:

“FDA foot-dragging has left the U.S. without enforceable standards for sunscreen safety and effectiveness for decades. EWG demands that FDA finalize the latest version of its monograph on sunscreen products immediately, and launch an investigation into the safety of the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone.”

Oxybenzone – one of several active chemical ingredients commonly used in sunscreen products – is of particular concern because test results show:

  • Oxybenzone is allergenic.
  • It is absorbed through the skin in large amounts.
  • It has been detected in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine and blood.
  • It is a potential endocrine disruptor.
  • Children may be more vulnerable to harm from oxybenzone than adults “because of the potential for higher absorption and bioaccumulation.”

Now in 2019, it appears that finally the FDA will take action to address these concerns.

How to stay healthy in a toxic world?

The new rules proposed by the FDA to regulate sunscreen products will not be finalized until November of this year, assuming everything goes according to plan. In the meantime, consumers can choose sunscreen products that contain less concerning ingredients. The Environmental Working Group recently released their 2019 Guide to Sunscreens. In the executive summary of that guide they state: Based on existing test data, the FDA’s recent proposal recognizes just two active ingredients – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – as being generally recognized as safe and effective. The EWG’s recommended sunscreen products can be found on their website. Consumers can also use EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to choose other personal care products that contain safer and less toxic ingredients.

To prevent sunburn, EWG recommends wearing protective clothing (including wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses), finding or making shade, and playing in the sun in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky as first-line interventions, and then using sunscreen as a last resort when needed.

Health Risks and Benefits of Sun Exposure

It’s important to note that sunscreen blocks vitamin D synthesis. Direct exposure to sunlight is nature’s way of meeting our needs for vitamin D. It’s very difficult to get our vitamin D needs met through food alone. According to one study, 42% of Americans in the United States suffer from vitamin D deficiency.

According to a review paper titled The risks and benefits of sun exposure 2016 published in the journal Dermato-endocrinology: the only risk associated with non-burning sun exposure needed to achieve vitamin D sufficiency is some possible increased risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer. On the flip-side, the risks of inadequate sun exposure include increased risk of all-cause mortality, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and the list goes on.

As a point of clarification: getting sunburned is bad as it increases our risk of skin cancer, including melanoma which is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. While moderate sun exposure is vitally important for good health, we do want to take care not to get sunburned.

In conclusion of their review of the risks and benefits of sun exposure, the authors state:

“Insufficient sun exposure has become a major public health problem, demanding an immediate change in the current sun-avoidance public health advice. The degree of change needed is small but critically important. The public must be advised to obtain enough sun exposure and vitamin D supplementation to maintain a serum 25(OH)D level of at least 30 ng/mL.”

The take-home message is: take care not to get sunburn, but don’t avoid the sun altogether. If you use sunscreen, check out the EWG’s 2019 Guide to Sunscreen to help you choose a product that contains less toxic ingredients. Have fun, play safe, and enjoy the sun in moderation!

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