With all of this, you might be wondering if sunscreen is still worth it.
The short answer: Absolutely. While there are real concerns about these issues, at this point the risks are more theoretical than proven. Regular use of sunscreen, on the other hand, clearly prevents skin cancers and saves lives. Some research suggests it can reduce the risk of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, by around 50%.
Plus, you can make smart choices to ensure the sunscreens you choose for you and your family are safe and effective, and possibly better for the environment.
Why Your Sunscreen Isn’t Working
To help you with this effort, Consumer Reports tests dozens of sunscreens, identifying which ones work best and which ones don’t protect you as well. We also tested every aerosol sunscreen in our rankings for benzene: all were free of harmful chemicals. (Read “Benzene, a Known Carcinogen, Has Been Found in Some Aerosol Sunscreens, Deodorants, and Other Products” for more about benzene in aerosol personal care products.) We also dug deeper into the research and discussed with experts to understand the potential health risks and environmental health hazards posed by certain sunscreen ingredients. Here are the answers to some important questions.
Recent research has raised some concerns about chemical sunscreens — those that use one or more of a dozen chemical ingredients approved for use in the United States to filter out the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.
In 2019, the FDA announced that it wanted more information about the safety of these ingredients, including whether they are absorbed systemically – through the skin into the bloodstream. That’s partly because Americans now use far more sunscreen than in the past, and because today’s products contain more combinations and higher concentrations of ingredients.
Soon after, FDA scientists published studies showing that six common chemical ingredients – avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene and oxybenzone – do indeed enter the circulation. blood.
The FDA emphasizes that absorption does not mean these ingredients are unsafe. But the amounts taken were above levels that the FDA says would exempt them from safety testing, so more research is needed.
“The key question is whether this systemic absorption actually causes harm,” says Kathleen Suozzi, assistant professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
A lab has found a carcinogen in dozens of sunscreens. Here’s what these findings really mean.
Definitive answers can take years. “Generating the kind of information the FDA wants is difficult, time-consuming and very expensive,” says Mark Chandler, president of ACT Solutions, which consults with sunscreen manufacturers and other cosmetics makers on formulation. some products.
Avoid chemical sunscreens?
The FDA, American Academy of Dermatology, and independent researchers say people don’t need to stop using chemical sunscreens.
“These UV filters have been used for years by millions of people, and there have been no noticeable systemic effects,” says Henry W. Lim, a leading sunscreen researcher and former chairman of the department. of Dermatology from Henry Ford Health in Michigan, who also consulted with sunscreen manufacturers. “I still feel very comfortable saying it’s a safe way to prevent skin cancer and other sun damage.”
But some of these chemicals may be more worrisome than others. “Oxybenzone and, to a lesser extent, octinoxate became the primary concerns,” Lim says.
This is mainly because preliminary animal research suggests that oxybenzone may interfere with hormone production, which could theoretically affect fertility, puberty, and thyroid function. But research on sunscreens that has been done in humans has not raised any major concerns. For example, although a 2020 review of 29 studies looking at the health effects of oxybenzone and octinoxate said more research was needed, it also failed to identify clear links with health issues.
Still, to play it safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents not use sunscreens containing oxybenzone on children. And people of any age who want to avoid sunscreens containing either of these chemicals can easily do so because manufacturers now use them less often. Few sunscreens in our rankings contain oxybenzone and none contain octinoxate.
It is true that sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which work by creating a physical barrier on your skin, are not absorbed through the skin and do not enter the bloodstream.
Unfortunately, these mineral sunscreens might not be as effective as products with the most effective chemical filters, Chandler says. All of the mineral sunscreens CR tested appear near the middle or bottom of our ratings.
3.4 million Americans could be diagnosed with skin cancer in 2022
One possible reason: It takes a lot of titanium or zinc to create a product with a high SPF, Chandler says, and it’s hard to do that without making the sunscreen thick, slippery, and hard to scrub off. Also, the minerals sometimes clump together. in the product, so they don’t disperse evenly across the skin, leaving potential gaps in protection.
Try “reef safe” products?
Some research suggests that oxybenzone and octinoxate can threaten ocean reef corals and harm other marine species. So far, this connection has been mostly studied in high doses and in the lab, not in the real world. And in research on sunscreen chemicals in seawater, the amounts detected, even at popular beaches, are far below levels linked to harm in laboratory studies.
Still, the potential concern has prompted Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands and some other places to ban sunscreens containing either ingredient. And some sunscreen manufacturers are now labeling their products as “reef safe.” In most cases, the term is used when a product does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. But the FDA doesn’t regulate the term, so it doesn’t have a defined meaning.
So if you want a product without oxybenzone or octinoxate, your best bet is to check the ingredient list.
Does a spray or lotion work better?
Used correctly, both can do a good job.
But sprays can be tricky to apply. “The droplets can disperse through the air, making it easy to miss areas of your skin,” Lim says. To avoid this, spray sunscreen on the palm of your hand and then rub it in. It is best then to hold the nozzle just 2.5 cm from your skin, spray until you can see a film on your skin, then rub it in.
Also be careful not to inhale the spray, as the ingredients can irritate or even damage your lungs. (For this reason, CR experts say it’s best not to use sprays on children.) Spraying it in your hand also helps prevent inhalation. Never spray directly on your face and be careful when using sprays when it is windy. The spray may blow into your face and mouth, or scatter and not adequately cover your skin.
Skip the sunscreen if you cover up?
Not entirely. You still need it on exposed skin. Experts point to huge amounts of research linking sun exposure to around 90% of skin cancers and the proven effectiveness of sunscreens in blocking cancer-causing UV rays.
On rare occasions, people with dark skin can get skin cancer. But sunscreens won’t help.
But covering up means you can use a lot less sunscreen. For example, if you wear a long-sleeved swimsuit or lycra instead of a traditional bathing suit, you won’t need to apply sunscreen to your arms, back, and chest. This can reduce the amount of sunscreen you need to use on your body that could get on your skin or in the ocean.
Dermatologists say sunscreen should never be your only defense against UV rays. Try to avoid the sun at its peak, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. And when you are outside, especially during these hours, cover up, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and seek shade when possible.
Concerns about the absorption of sunscreen ingredients through the skin and into the bloodstream have prompted some researchers to search for alternatives, says Christopher Bunick, associate professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.
Researchers are exploring formulas that encapsulate chemical sunscreen ingredients, which would hold them above the skin and provide protection without being absorbed.
It is also possible that some of the sunscreen ingredients used in Europe and Canada may be approved for use here. A few are stuck in the FDA approval process. “So it’s a ray of hope that we could eventually see [them] used in sunscreens in the United States,” says Lim.
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