Consumer Reports Examines Conflicting Claims About Sunscreen Ingredients

Wearing sunscreen on a hot summer’s day has always been such an obvious, primitive thing to do due to its perceived benefits — protection from UV rays, sunburn prevention, premature aging, and lower risk of skin cancer. However, current research suggests that these benefits we have always believed sunscreen to have may not be the entire story.

The FDA recently completed an investigation over the risks of sunscreen by reviewing the major ingredients of sunscreen: oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, and octocrylene. Experts are concerned with oxybenzone and avobenzone; despite their efficacy at deflecting UV rays, they may compromise skin function and hormone levels, and may even cause skin cancer. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an activist group that specializes in the research pertaining to toxic chemicals, accumulated data from the FDA and assigned oxybenzone the highest hazard score. On a scale of 1-10, oxybenzone was 8, or considered highly hazardous. EWG continues to state that oxybenzone has been shown to cause relatively high rates of skin allergy, can alter birth weight, and disrupt estrogen and androgen levels to a moderate extent. Sophie J. Balk, an attending pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx and a member of the AAP Council on Environmental Health, adds on to oxybenzone’s negative effect on hormones, “Studies in laboratory animals and other laboratory studies show that this chemical can mimic the actions of hormones that naturally occur in the human body. This is called endocrine disruption.” While the impact this chemical has in lab animals may differ in humans, this study calls for more action to be taken to further investigate oxybenzone’s role in the endocrine system.

The consequences of exposure to sunscreen chemicals, in the low doses humans generally get, are not strong enough to be acted upon at this time.  There is a lot of differing opinions on whether sunscreen containing these ingredients should be removed from the shelves just yet. For instance, while organizations such as the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) say sunscreen is safe, others like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend caution. To add on to this ongoing debate, Personal Care Products Council, a trade association that represents the sunscreen manufacturers, issued a statement stating that the 12 ingredients are safe and effective in Europe. All this back and forth has put a pause on any such proposal FDA can bring forth to ban chemicals.

If you are concerned with the chemical ingredients, you can always opt for a mineral-based sunscreen. Minerals such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide sit on the skin rather than being absorbed and therefore pose less risk. It is important to keep in mind, however, that minerals have a lower deflection rate of UV rays than chemicals do and are thereby less effective.

Since there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding sunscreen, there are always other ways you can protect yourself. Limiting exposure by covering your skin with clothing and hats serves as a protective barrier. Wearing a broad-brimmed hat during peak daytime hours, or even better, staying indoors, will help shield your skin.

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