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Sunscreen: dangerous for your health?

Raymond Lepage, PhD
Raymond Lepage, PhD
Senior Scientific Advisor

Avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, ecamsule! Though these might sound like new atmospheric pollutants, they are in fact the active ingredients in many sunscreens. A study published in May 2019 in the journal JAMA1 showed that these chemicals quickly enter the bloodstream after being applied generously to the skin. They can accumulate in the body and become toxic, disrupting the endocrine system and perhaps even causing cancer. And it’s not just these ingredients, which are just four of the 16 most commonly used in sunscreens. Of those, only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are definitively considered safe. The toxicity of the others is not sufficiently documented.

It should be noted that US standards for the safety of sunscreen ingredients stipulate that only ingredients found in the blood at a concentration greater than 0.5 nanograms per milliliter (0.5 ng/ml) should be subject to toxicity studies. However, public awareness of the dangers of UV exposure from the sun has led to a marked increase in the average dose of sunscreens, which are often applied to the skin every two hours.

The study of two sprays, a lotion, and a cream demonstrated that that the avobenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule levels could respectively reach eight, fifteen, and three times the dose of 0.5 ng/ml. Oxybenzone showed the most absorption, with both the tested sprays resulting in blood levels exceeding 100 times the threshold considered ineffective.

An important warning though. This study does not imply that sunscreens are dangerous for your health. It simply underlines the necessity for further study to better understand the safety of ingredients according to the circumstances in which they are most commonly used. We should also add that these ingredients may have different effects when sunscreens are used on children, or with adults who are ill, pregnant or breastfeeding. Also, some skin types may allow for more absorption of substances than others.

While this study may raise some doubt about several substances used by the cosmetics industry, the risk of developing skin cancer (melanoma) following exposure to ultraviolet radiation is not in any doubt. Choose the lesser of two evils: protect your skin, apply according to direction [1], and enjoy the sunshine!

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  1. Murali K. Matta, PhD; Robbert Zusterzeel, MD, PhD, MPH; Nageswara R. Pilli, PhD; et al. “Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial.” May 6, 2019. (accessed June 2019).