How Worried Should I Be About Chemical Sunscreen?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Swellness is a monthlong series exploring the health-and-wellness stuff no one talks about.

As the warmer months start to roll around, so do the burning questions about sunscreens and their safety. You might see scary headlines like “Sunscreen Chemicals Soak All the Way Into Your Bloodstream!” A 2020 study did indeed find this to be happening, but does that mean you should skip sunscreen — or switch to a mineral version?

First, it’s important to note that the ingredients from both chemical and mineral sunscreens are absorbed into your skin. For a long time, mineral block was thought to be preferable because the ingredients (zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of the two) physically reflected light and weren’t absorbed into your skin. But that isn’t true. Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a Boston-based dermatologist, points to the findings of a landmark 2016 study that show that mineral sunscreens, like their chemical counterparts, protect skin mainly by absorption, not, as was previously thought, simply by reflection or scattering. “All sunscreen agents work by absorbing UV and converting them into other forms of energy, like heat or light,” says Julian Sass, Ph.D., a cosmetics research scientist and director of research and development and education for Matter of Fact.

That said, some of the hesitancy around chemical sunscreens (which use avobenzone, oxybenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, or octocrylene) comes down to the word “chemical” itself. There’s a general distrust of chemicals and a lack of understanding about their potential risks and benefits, says Michelle Henry, M.D., a dermatologist based in New York. “Chemical” raises an immediate alarm, agrees U.K.-based cosmetic chemist and Murad brand advocate Rifah Tasnim. “Many jump to the conclusion that they are not good; however, chemicals are all around us, even water is a chemical,” she says.

As for the finding that these chemicals are absorbed in the blood, Hirsch broke down what the study really means for sunscreen users and said there were a few important takeaways. First, finding something in the blood is not necessarily a bad thing, she says, adding that the bloodstream is what delivers anything that needs to be filtered out to our liver and kidneys. Secondly, the study showed that the ingredients tended to stay on the superficial skin for a long time, which is where the product is designed to function. “The FDA themselves put out a press release to say the findings of chemicals in the bloodstream did not make it unsafe,” says Hirsch. And while the FDA is conducting more testing, it also deemed these chemicals to be safe and the continued use of sunscreen “vital.”

Why, then, are pregnant and breastfeeding women advised to steer clear of chemical sunscreens? That has less to do with the product and more to do with the exclusion of pregnant and breastfeeding women and children from studies. “There are massive ethical issues with including these groups in clinical studies and so, out of an abundance of caution, some American bodies do not recommend use for these groups,” says Sass. But, he explains, it’s important to note this is not true around the world. “In Europe, where many people view the regulations as more comprehensive, the sunscreens recommended for children and pregnant people are often chemical,” he says.

The U.S. is woefully behind our European counterparts when it comes to sunscreen advancements — it has been 20 years since the FDA approved new sunscreen ingredients. Abroad, the newer chemical filters are more refined (with better texture and absorption and no eye stinging, a frequent complaint). Even Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (an admitted sunscreen obsessive; she’s a fan of Biore’s UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence from Japan) took to Instagram earlier this year to voice her concerns about this. “The rest of the world is literally decades ahead on sunscreen technology,” Ocasio-Cortez lamented in her Instagram Stories. “Because sunscreens are drugs in the U.S., new filters must go through a new drug-approval process, which is extremely time-consuming — it can take up to 20 years — and incredibly expensive,” says Sass.

There are also the environmental concerns around chemical sunscreens, particularly as they relate to the destruction of coral reefs. Hawaii is the first state in the U.S. to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. But Hirsch thinks the “reef-safe” labeling adopted by many brands is more of a marketing strategy than anything else. Sass says there are some studies on sunscreen chemical-bleaching coral in tanks, but no one has studied fully formulated sunscreen in the ocean, which is, needless to say, a different scale. “Right now there is not sufficient, reliable, scientific data (that also includes risk assessment) involving sunscreens and coral reefs,” says Sass, adding that studies in process may bring new regulations if necessary.

If you still want to avoid chemical sunscreens but loathe the white cast that often comes with mineral versions, rest assured: They have evolved. There have been mineral sunscreens developed with darker skin in mind (like Live Tinted’s Hueguard, UnSun Cosmetics, and Black Girl Sunscreen, which makes a hybrid version), but because zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are white powders that cannot be dissolved in water or oil and must be suspended, making them invisible can be quite a feat. “There are formulas that have minimal cast on darker skin tones because of tints and using very tiny particles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, but it’s impossible to have a ‘mineral’ sunscreen that is invisible on all skin tones because of the nature of the filters themselves,” says Sass.

No matter if you choose chemical or mineral sunscreen, as far as efficacy goes, you’re equally protected. “The most important factor in sunscreen effectiveness is the application and reapplication of an adequate amount of product,” says Henry. The majority of people do not apply sunscreen correctly. The recommended amount (and the amount that SPF-number testing is based on) is about a quarter-teaspoon for your face. If you don’t think in teaspoons, follow the two-finger rule: Apply sunscreen in lines along your middle and index finger, and that should be enough for the face. “Using less than that compromises efficacy,” says Hirsch, who makes it her mission to help patients find a sunscreen that looks good and doesn’t feel gross so they’ll be compliant about using it. The adage repeated often by dermatologists remains true: The best sunscreen is the one you will use. And if that’s a chemical one, it’s okay.

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How Worried Should I Be About Chemical Sunscreen?