Is your sunscreen toxic or a hormone disruptor? Ingredients, studies spark debate

Chemicals that protect skin from ultraviolet rays have also raised concerns about their impact on human health.
Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Summertime always seems to reignite questions about people’s most faithful outdoor companion: sunscreen.

Two studies published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the past year have found certain active ingredients that protect the skin from ultraviolet rays were absorbed into the bloodstream — even after a single use — and could remain in the body for extended periods of time.

But absorption “does NOT equal risk” and the findings don’t mean any of the ingredients tested have been deemed unsafe for use in sunscreens, the FDA noted in January when the second study was released.

As part of proposed changes in 2019, the agency asked the industry to provide more information about 12 sunscreen ingredients before they could be “generally recognized as safe and effective.”

Still, “the FDA strongly advises all Americans to continue to use sunscreens” to help prevent skin cancer, the government emphasized.

Advocacy group weighs in

It’s understandable why consumers would be confused, said Nneka Leiba, vice president of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog nonprofit based in Washington.

“Every summer, the consumer hears that there may be problems with sunscreen ingredients and sunscreen products, yet those products remain on store shelves,” Leiba told TODAY.

“It’s a bit backward, perhaps, to think that we need to prove definitively that these ingredients cause harm in order for them to come off the market versus the other way around, where the companies should prove definitively that these ingredients are safer or safe before they go out on store shelves… we should not be the guinea pigs on which these ingredients are tested.”

There are regulations over the sunscreen industry, but they’re extremely weak, Leiba added.

The industry shot back, with the Personal Care Products Council — a trade group that represents the cosmetics companies — charging that EWG “attempts to needlessly scare consumers with false claims and misinformation that can be potentially harmful to public health.”

For EWG's 14th annual guide to sunscreens, released this month, the group rated more than 1,300 products and found only 25% met its standard of providing broad spectrum protection — shielding against both UV-A and UV-B rays — while avoiding ingredients that may potentially affect health.

EWG’s “best of” list contains 180 products — it’s not narrowed down further to give people the most options for their skin type and availability of products in their area, Leiba said. EWG also produces a list of the best scoring sunscreens for kids and the best moisturizers with SPF.

Ingredients under scrutiny

In general, EWG recommends mineral-based sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the only two active ingredients the FDA last year proposed to declare as “generally recognized as safe and effective" for use in sunscreens.

Mineral formulations sit on top of the skin and deflect the sun's rays, while chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin and then absorb the sun's rays.

Ingredients widely used in chemical formulations, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone, are among those the FDA wanted more safety data on. EWG has been particularly concerned about oxybenzone, which it calls a potential hormone-disrupting chemical. It was one of the six ingredients shown to be absorbed into the bloodstream in the recent FDA studies.

But the industry defended the ingredient. Oxybenzone has been safely used since 1978 and is being “unjustly criticized” by EWG, the Personal Care Products Council said in a statement this month. Oxybenzone and the other active ingredients tested by the FDA have an “excellent safety record,” the group noted in January.

Medical societies: Keep wearing sunscreen

Claims that sunscreen ingredients are toxic or a hazard to human health have not been proven, the American Academy of Dermatology noted. The best type is the one you'll use again and again, it advised.

“The experts who have looked at the data have concluded that the potential risk of not using sunscreen far outweighs the risks of using sunscreen,” said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, in a statement.

The recent FDA studies showing sunscreen ingredients could be detected at “super low concentrations” in the blood weren’t correlated with any disease, said Dr. Adam Friedman, professor and interim chair of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.

“There’s nothing about any of the new data that makes me worried about any sunscreen ingredient,” Friedman told TODAY.

He also bristled at the notion that people are being used as “guinea pigs” for sunscreen ingredients.

“These filters have been around for decades,” Friedman said. “This is not people being experimented on.”

When the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act became law in March, it included language that left sunscreen regulations where they were in 1999, meaning all active ingredients currently used in sunscreens on the market today are “generally recognized as safe and effective.”

That means the actions the FDA proposed last year — including getting more safety data about 12 active sunscreen ingredients currently available in the U.S — must be proposed again to set any updates into motion.

“If the agency that governs the safety of sunscreens is raising a flag that some of these ingredients may not be as safe as previously thought, especially given that we slather them on our skin, that they stay on all day long, that they’re used on babies and children… then it behooves us to look into that,” Leiba noted.