Pay enough attention to the dialogue around natural beauty in this country, and you’ll start to notice there’s an anti-SPF movement afoot. Anti-sunscreeners pop up in Mommy Facebook groups and write op-eds on TreeHugger.com. Some of them are very famous: Several years ago, Gisele Bündchen called sunscreen “poison,” adding that she protects her skin by not going outside after 8 a.m. “I do not use anything synthetic,” she explained. (She later walked these comments back, saying she just tries to look for “more natural options.”) A Pilates teacher once advised me, in the middle of doing a move called “the clam,” to use tomato seeds as SPF. More recently, Lululemon tried to hide its anti-sunscreen agenda on its platitude-printed reusable shopping bags. “Sunscreen absorbed into the skin might be worse for you than sunshine,” it boldly said, right next to “Do one thing a day that scares you.”
The anti-sunscreen movement isn’t nearly as large (or as scary) as the anti-vaxx movement, but it’s a similar case of evidence-based science becoming ideological. Complicating things, it’s not just about sunscreen versus no sunscreen — there’s a debate about physical versus chemical sunscreens, too. Physical sunscreens (sometimes called “mineral sunscreens”) form a literal wall on your skin that blocks harmful UVA and UVB rays via ingredients like zinc oxide, while chemical sunscreens use ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate to absorb the rays. Some consider the chemical kind to be toxic, a word so overused it can mean almost everything, including “containing chemicals” (not a bad thing). GOOP, naturally (pun intended), is on it with an article called “Understanding — and Avoiding — Toxic Sunscreens” about the very subject.
Central to the sunscreen dialogue are two commonly used chemical-sunscreen ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate. They are the Jeffree Starr and Shane Dawson of sunscreen: very popular and regarded with high suspicion. In 2018, when sunscreen was found to be damaging to coral reefs, the study pointed specifically to these ingredients, which appear in 65 percent of chemical sunscreens. Many brands, such as Shiseido’s Ultimate Sun Protector Lotion SPF 50+ Sunscreen and Australian Gold, have removed them from their formulations. Hawaii considered entirely banning sunscreens containing these two ingredients.
Last year, oxybenzone and octinoxate became part of the conversation again after a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that certain chemical-sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed into the bloodstream. The study concluded, in a way that was both vague and alarming, that the amount absorbed was significant enough to require more testing but not so large as to warrant banning it entirely. It seemed to amount to “Maybe chemical sunscreen is dangerous, but let’s all keep using it until we know for sure.”
More recently, in January of this year, a new paper found basically the same thing through an expanded study with a greater sample size. Also published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, it examined six common sunscreen ingredients by testing 48 participants and having them apply sunscreen multiple times a day for 21 days. All of the tested ingredients, including oxybenzone and octinoxate, were found in the bloodstream of participants in as soon as seven days, at amounts above the FDA’s safety threshold.
If you’re feeling nervous, don’t go joining the anti-sunscreen community just yet. There’s a difference between becoming a sunscreen truther and simply trying to understand and digging into the details. Although certain sunscreen chemicals appear to be absorbed into your bloodstream, as a human with semi-permeable skin, you’re probably absorbing all sorts of other things all the time — such as pollution, says dermatologist Dr. Jeanine Downie. “If you’re sitting behind a truck, pollution particles are penetrating into your skin. These can be far more consequential than the little bit absorbed from chemical sunscreens,” she says. This argument is perhaps soothing only to those who have never stayed awake wondering about the millions of terrible things that can happen that you have no control over.
Consider that the amount of sunscreen absorbed into your blood is also a very, very tiny amount, tries Michelle Wong, an Australian chemist Ph.D. who debunks skin-care myths with her blog and YouTube channel, LabMuffin. In both studies, the FDA threshold for detection was set to 0.5 ng/ml, which is the equivalent of “half a drop in a million drops of something,” she explains. In the study, the average amount of ozybenzone found in blood was 169.3 to 209.6 ng/ml — about 0.025 percent. As a comparison, your body allegedly absorbs up to 90 percent of the nicotine in tobacco smoke.
The information from these studies, much like the bidet, is old news to Europeans. For over two decades, Europeans have done a number of studies on sunscreen absorption, the first of which was 22 years ago, says Wong. In 1997, they found oxybenzone in human urine (urine is formed via blood filtration, so this is basically presenting the same conclusion that the U.S. found just last year). “It’s not new information. This is just the first time the [American] FDA is [examining the topic],” Wong explains. “The EU has already used the findings from these studies to look into redoing the safety evaluation on sunscreen and still found that, despite the increased absorption, it was safe.”
Fearmongering natural-beauty advocates love to point out that the European Union has banned 1,300 cosmetics ingredients while the U.S. has only 11 on its “do not use” list. But on both lists, oxybenzone is still permitted. In 2008, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products of the European Commission officially ruled that oxybenzone “does not pose a significant risk to consumers.” The group will allow it in cosmetics products at levels up to 6 percent, which is the same as the limit in the U.S. In other words, to the scientific community, Americans freaking out about these studies is like when we got scared off fats in the ’80s. The already much-skinnier Europeans kept on eating butter and slathering it on their bread anyway, knowing that not all fats are bad for you, while Americans continued to panic about it for another decade until Keto and Atkins came along.
Additionally, dermatologists agree that it’s better to worry about the devil you know: We may not yet understand the full effects of sunscreen absorption, but we do have plenty of evidence that the sun has harmful UVA and UVB rays that are proven to cause skin cancer and break down the skin’s collagen. Dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss says, “This study is not meant to scare anyone or modify behaviors. This study is shedding light on a topic that requires more studies and more data in order to reach an objective, clearly defined conclusion. The sun’s UV rays are a known, well-established, scientifically proven cause of skin cancer.” We may currently be in a coronavirus pandemic, but Dr. Downie says we are also in a skin-cancer epidemic. “The real risk toward skin cancer is significant. It used to be that one person every hour would contract melanoma, and now it’s two,” she explains.
Ultimately, if you still feel anxious about sunscreen in general, just use a physical sunscreen. But consider that chemical sunscreens can still have advantages physical ones do not. Dr. Downie herself prefers using a blend of physical and mineral sunscreens, explaining that mineral sunscreens can provide more broad-spectrum protection from both UVA rays (which cause skin degradation) and UVB rays (which cause sunburn). “I have bad melasma, and I’m vain,” she says. “Chemical sunscreen gives you an additional boost of protection that the physical alone does not, and sometimes more thoroughly.”
Wong agrees, noting that it’s much easier to create and find a chemical sunscreen with SPF 50 that also gives high UVA protection. “Mineral sunscreens also give a white cast [especially on darker skin tones],” she says, “which encourages people to apply less, and the amount you apply is directly proportional to your protection. In consumer reports, it’s often the mineral sunscreens that don’t perform up to their labeled protection, as mineral particles tend to spread out more. In my opinion, although they’re better for sensitive skin, they’re also less reliable.” When it comes to sunscreen, believe in something — just don’t believe in nothing.