Is chemical sunscreen safe? Many people feel somewhat conflicted about using sunscreen given all the recent news about sunscreen.
Concerning recent information about sunscreen includes:
- scientific studies showing that chemical sunscreen is absorbed through your skin and into your body,
- FDA statement that the only GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective) sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,
- sunscreen's continued ability to damage coral, and
- many popular brands of sunscreen have been found to contain the cancer causing chemical benzene.
What should you do? Should you really be using sunscreen - or would the skin damage from UV rays be better for your health and the ocean? In this article, I'm going to give you information and my medical opinion as a dermatologist who has practiced for over 35 years and as a woman concerned with my own and my family's health.
What is chemical sunscreen?
Chemical sunscreen is formulated to block UV rays using non-mineral UV filters. The term 'UV filter' means a substance capable of absorbing or reflecting UV rays to prevent them from penetrating skin.
The ingredients listed in the “active ingredient” portion of a sunscreen includes all the UV filters in a product.
All ingredients other than ‘zinc oxide’ or ‘titanium dioxide’ are chemical UV filters. - Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey
When a sunscreen has only chemical UV filters it is entirely a chemical sunscreen.
How do you know what is in your sunscreen?
You find the active UV filters listed on the back label of every sunscreen.
The FDA requires sunscreens to have back labels that are titled ‘Drug Facts’.
Active Ingredients: The first section on a sunscreen Drug Facts back label lists the "Active Ingredients", which are the UV filters.
Inactive Ingredients: All of the other ingredients, including the base (cream/lotion/gel/liquid etc.) and other ingredients such as vitamins and antioxidants, are called "Inactive Ingredients". They are listed at the bottom of that label. They are not considered ‘active’ when it comes to sunscreen.
I have recommended mineral sunscreens over chemical sunscreens for over 20 years.
I recommended zinc oxide sunscreens to my patients starting in 1999 when a great form of invisible zinc oxide became available. I started this blog in September of 2009, writing 2 posts a week for most of that time. I created my website about 9 months before that. In those 12 years, I've internationally shared my opinion that sunscreen with a minimum of 5% zinc oxide gives the best, most stable and trusted protection based on doing hundreds of thousands of skin exams on Californians over my career.
My patients brought me the results of their sunscreen usage in real life. The medical literature and industry lagged behind, but my patients and I saw what worked and it was 5% or more zinc oxide. - Dermatologist-Rebel and Skin Wellness Expert Dr. Cynthia Bailey
The FDA and medical experts are coming to the same conclusion, though for different reasons. My recommendations have not changed - and today, we have even better zinc oxide sunscreen technology than we did back in 1999.
Dermatologist Dr. Bailey's Sun Protection Advice
Minimize the amount of exposed skin by wearing sun protective clothing on as much of you as you are willing to cover then A.S.K. yourself if your exposed skin is adequately - and safely - protected.
A: Apply zinc oxide sunscreen. We now have easy to love invisible formulations.
S: Shade your skin with a hat and being in the shade when possible.
K: Know your UV exposure intensity and reapply sunscreen as needed.
I have made it my priority to provide the right range of pure mineral non-nano particle sunscreens for every day in our lives;
Pure Zinc Sunscreens:
- Facial daily wear Sheer Strength Pure Physical Invisible, Tinted or Spray Sunscreens
- Neck/scalp/chest/hairy skin daily wear Sheer Strength Pure Physical Spray Sunscreen
Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide Mineral Sunscreens
- Sheer Strength Pure Physical Daily SPF 30 Refresh Powder Sunscreen to reapply sunscreen without messing up makeup or getting your hands messy
- Wet play and sweaty activities that need a water resistant SPF Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF 30 Spray Water Resistant Sunscreen.
Chemical sunscreen is more fragile and less stable than mineral sunscreen
It is important to understand that chemical sunscreen molecules are fragile, both when on your skin blocking UV rays and when sitting in a bottle or tube waiting for you to use them.
The stability issue with chemical sunscreens makes them less dependable in my experience and I have seen them fail to protect my patients even when used according to instructions for proper application and reapplication. - Dermatologist Dr. Bailey
How does chemical sunscreen work?
Chemical sunscreen UV filters work by absorbing UV rays with a chemical reaction.
- Each time a UV ray causes this reaction, the molecule of chemical sunscreen is destroyed. It is one of the reasons that you need to reapply sunscreen during prolonged sun exposure, basically, you run out of chemical sunscreen molecules on your skin as they block the sun’s UV rays.
- This chemical reaction also generates a little heat which may make skin feel a little warmer than with mineral sunscreens.
Chemical sunscreen also needs time to bind with your skin before it starts working. This is one reason why we recommend applying sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure. This time allow the product to absorb into the top layer of your skin where it will work.
What separates chemical sunscreen from physical sunscreen?
Physical sunscreen, also called mineral sunscreen, blocks UV rays using the physical mineral particles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These particles sit on the top of your skin and block the sun’s UV rays by both reflecting and scattering rays. They also work to some extent by absorbing the rays.
It has long been thought that most of their protection comes from bouncing the rays off of skin. Recently, a laboratory study suggests that there may be more absorption of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide than we thought but that has not been confirmed using actual sunscreen mineral filters, which are very different than raw zinc and titanium. This is important because absorption breaks down the UV filter just as it does with chemical sunscreens. No matter what the mechanism of action of mineral sunscreens, we recommend reapplication every 2 hours during sustained sun exposure.
What is the evidence that chemical sunscreen may not be safe?
The safety of chemical sunscreen has come into question with a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2019 and a second study published in 2020.
- Chemical sunscreen is rapidly absorbed through the skin into the blood under normal usage conditions. The first study showed that 4 of the chemical sunscreen filters present in 4 commercially available sunscreens are readily absorbed into the blood stream during the course of normal recommended use/reapplication during a beach holiday. The blood levels exceeded the FDA's safe level by as early as day 1 and remained high for up to 7 days after discontinuing the use of the sunscreen. The second study showed another 6 chemical UV filters from 4 commercially available sunscreens did the same thing.
- Some chemical sunscreens have been found in breast milk, including oxybenzone and octocrylene.
- Oxybenzone/benzophenone has also been detected in amniotic fluid (fluid surrounding the baby in a pregnant woman).
- Studies suggest oxybenzone/benzophenone and octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) may be hormone disruptors and oxybenzone may be a carcinogen. Both are common chemical sunscreen filters.
- The FDA has said that only the two mineral active sunscreen ingredients are recognized as safe and effective, these are the physical sunscreen UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. All others, meaning all chemical sunscreen UV filters, need further study.
What are the environmental implications of chemical sunscreens?
Sunscreen ingredients enter the environment when we swim and shower, where they wash off into aquatic environments and waterways. Some of the main sunscreen ingredients used today that are known to harm marine life include oxybenzone/benzophenone, nano-titanium dioxide and nano-zinc oxide, octinoxate, oxtocrylene. The image here is a real-life example of the potential volume of sunscreen in an aquatic ecosystem. If each of these bathing suit wearing beachgoers applied the requisite 1 ounce of sunscreen every 2 hours to prevent sunburned skin during this beach holiday, you can imagine how much sunscreen is in this water!
It is also important to know that some of these chemical sunscreen ingredients, such as octocrylene and benzophenone, are also used in personal care and food products that are not sunscreens.
What are the most common chemical sunscreen UV filters?
Chemical sunscreens include a combination of
There are other less common chemical sunscreen UV filters including:
- Padimate O
What chemical sunscreen ingredients should you look out for and definitely avoid?
I would definitely recommend you avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone/benzophenone. Hawaii has already banned sunscreens that contain oxybenzone because of its implication in coral bleaching.
Are there chemical sunscreens I can recommend?
I prefer mineral sunscreens that are made from non-nano size particles. Technology has advanced to the point that there are now invisible pure mineral sunscreens that are easy to use such as my Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreens. The technology to make a great pure mineral sunscreen, especially a pure zinc oxide sunscreen, is NOT inexpensive. I think the benefits far outweigh the cost.
That said, some people still prefer chemical sunscreens because they are less likely to have a white cast and often more economical compared with the latest invisible mineral sunscreen technology. I prefer sun protective clothing and the high-tech invisible mineral products, but if one wants to use a chemical sunscreen instead of a mineral sunscreen then I recommend two based on seeing them work well for my patients in real life usage:
- The combination of the chemical sunscreen octinoxate with zinc oxide which works really well, usually rubs in pretty clear, and limits the chemical exposure to just one chemical UV filter. An option I used for years in my practice is Citrix SPF 40 Water Resistant Sunscreen. My patients and family used this for years until we had Sheer Strength Pure Physical chemical free options.
- Ecamsule in Mexoryl SX or XL. These products contain ecamsule, a patented UV filter owned by L’Oreal and exclusive to their brands under La Roche-Posay including their Anthelios products.
The other chemical sunscreens are usually combination of at least 3 or 4 chemical UV filters and I have seen so many of these products fail to protect my patients in real life usage situations; I see surprise sunburns, tanning and darkening of freckles – all of which indicate DNA skin damage.
The bottom line with chemical sunscreens:
It's my opinion that I want to avoid them. I recommend that you read sunscreen labels and use only pure mineral products. I only use pure mineral products. I combine them with wearing sun protective clothing and seeking or creating shade to protect my skin. It's what I recommend for everyone and what my daughter and her young family do to protect the precious skin and health of my toddler granddaughter.