Sunscreens under scrutiny: New FDA rules coming after summer’s end, plenty of confusion over what’s safe
Mineral or chemical sunscreens? How much does it matter that the body absorbs some chemicals? Those are among the questions being decided.
Ian and Michelle Merrill try to avoid potentially harmful ingredients in the sunscreens they slather on their four young children, ages 6, 5, 3 and 1-1/2.
The Chicago family, who spent time this past week playing at Foster Beach, recently bought a sunscreen specifically because it contained zinc oxide and was labeled “no oxybenzone & parabens.”
“We’re familiar with the bad stuff,” Ian Merrill says. “Not having those chemicals is huge for us.”
Still, the Merrills say it can be confusing to decide what’s best given the array of ingredients in sunscreens that are all legal now but could face stricter standards in a review the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to complete too late for this summer but sometime this fall.
For years, some health and consumer advocates have warned of potential side-effects of certain sunscreen ingredients that studies have shown can enter the bloodstream.
Sunscreen manufacturers say detecting the presence of these chemicals in the human body doesn’t mean they are bad.
That’s what the FDA is trying to determine. The federal agency has been collecting information since 2019 and is due to issue new rules on sunscreen ingredients, formulations and labeling no later than Sept. 27.
This will be the first time the federal government has updated its sunscreen regulations since 2011.
The Environmental Working Group, an organization of scientists and policy experts, says that until then people should consider switching to mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide — which protect you from the sun by providing a physical barrier and help reflect the sun’s rays — rather than using chemical sunscreens. The FDA already has deemed those two mineral ingredients “safe and effective.”
The agency previously singled out two chemical sunscreen ingredients to avoid: para-aminobenzoic acid, or PABA, and trolamine salicylate, saying “the risks … outweigh their benefits.” Both have largely disappeared from sunscreens.
Now, the FDA is evaluating these 12 chemical sunscreen ingredients: cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, homosalate, meradimate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, padimate O, sulisobenzone, oxybenzone and avobenzone.
Of those, the EWG flags oxybenzone as the most concerning, citing studies that have shown it’s absorbed through the skin in large amounts and has been found in breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine and blood and is a potential endocrine system disrupter.
Besides oxybenzone, studies have found that octinoxate (also called octyl methoxycinnamate), homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene and avobenzene are absorbed into the bloodstream, too.
The European Commission — the European Union’s executive branch — has issued a preliminary finding suggesting that oxybenzone and homosalate are unsafe at current U.S. levels.
“There are safer alternatives out there,” says Carla Burns, the EWG’s senior director for cosmetic beauty, who manages the group’s annual sunscreen guide. “It’s just a matter of why continue to use that if there are safer alternatives out there?”
The Personal Care Products Council and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which together represent many sunscreen makers, have urged the FDA to consider that “the significant benefits provided by sunscreens need to be appropriately weighed against any potential risks.”
The groups told the FDA that worried consumers might stop using sun-blocking products altogether, putting them at great risk.
The American Academy of Dermatology says an estimated 9,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer every day.
The FDA said last year that “the fact that an ingredient is absorbed through the skin and into the body does not mean that the ingredient is unsafe.” But it said that, with Americans using more sunscreen, a fresh look was needed.
Hawaii has banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate because they are toxic to coral and other marine life.
The FDA also is looking at limiting sun-protection factor, or SPF, claims to “60+,” noting that higher SPF numbers don’t provide proportionately greater protection.
The agency also is considering new rules for sunscreen sprays, which some critics worry can send chemicals deep into the lungs.
Sally Benson, a Chicago mother of two boys ages 13 and 10, says she switched to mineral sunscreens years ago in hopes of lessening her kids’ exposure to chemicals in general.
Her family often goes to the beach, and Benson didn’t like the idea of putting chemical lotions on her kids.
“The main concern was they’re so young, and they’ve got their whole lifetime to absorb chemicals,” Benson says. “We’re bombarded on a daily basis.”