Welcome to Ask a Beauty Editor, our new column in which Sarah Jacoby, SELF’s senior health and beauty editor, goes on the hunt to find the science-backed answers to all of your skin-care questions. You can ask Sarah a question at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Confession: I haven’t always been great at using sunscreen, but when I hit my late twenties I finally started taking it a lot more seriously. Now, I apply and reapply whenever I’m in the sun, and I wear SPF on my face every single day. I finally feel like a good, responsible sunscreen-user…and then I read that report that sunscreen is seeping into our blood?! WTF?
So, wait, is sunscreen not the holy grail item I should be slathering on diligently? And are all sunscreens leaking into our bodies, or just certain kinds? (I use any old sunscreen on my body, but I stick to mineral sunscreens with just zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on my face, because my face is super sensitive and burns like hell when I put the other stuff on it.)
On a scale of 1-10, how panicked should we be about sunscreen absorbing into our bodies?
To Apply or Not Apply
Let me just say that you are absolutely not the only person wondering this. My friends, family, and even my therapist have asked me about sunscreen absorption in recent weeks, wondering if this healthy habit may actually be leading to something else.
“I’ve gotten lots of questions about this,” Mary L. Stevenson, M.D., assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. In the era of clean beauty, informed consumers are already paying more attention to what they put on their skin before they reach for sunscreen, she says, so it makes sense that this would catch their eye.
So, why are we all worried about this all of a sudden? Well, it may have something to do with the many, many headlines talking about how your blood is actually FULL of sunscreen, and asking, with some deeply suspicious side-eye, how safe are all those sunscreens anyway?
I’ll dig into the science behind these stories in a bit, but the main takeaway is this: This study doesn’t show that it’s dangerous for sunscreen to absorb into your bloodstream—just that it happens. So keep wearing sunscreen, because we do know what happens when you don’t.
These headlines came from a study published a few months ago in JAMA. For the study, FDA researchers had 24 people each test one of four sunscreens, which included two sprays and two lotions. The participants applied their sunscreen to 75 percent of their body four times a day for four days. The researchers also took blood samples from the participants over seven days, which included three days after their sunscreen application ended.
The blood tests showed that starting after just the first day, the concentration of all four chemical sunscreen ingredients tested for (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, ecamsule) in participants’ blood tests was over the limit of 0.5 ng/mL. That definitely doesn’t sound ideal! But it’s also not necessarily as scary as it seems.
“Just because something is absorbed does not make it unsafe,” Theresa Michele, M.D. director of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products, tells SELF. “What it does mean is that those ingredients need to be tested further to see how safe they are in the body.” And that’s exactly where the FDA hopes to go from here, she says.
The FDA performed this study for a couple of different reasons, Dr. Michele explains, which are all related to the FDA’s proposed rule changes for the way sunscreens should be regulated.
First off, we know much more about how drugs are absorbed by the body than we did back in the 1970s when sunscreens were first approved. “We used to think that what you put on the skin stayed on the skin and that was it,” Dr. Michele says. We now know that’s definitely not the case. Note that this is not an inherently bad thing! Some drugs—nicotine patches, birth control patches, etc.—are purposely delivered through the skin and into the bloodstream.
But it does mean that we need to be aware of how much is getting through the skin and what effects that might have. We also have more sensitive testing these days to detect lower levels of those chemicals in the bloodstream, which makes now the perfect time to revisit these issues.
Second, the way we’re using sunscreens has evolved in the past few decades. It used to be something fair-skinned people would put on at the beach for a few days and then not think about until their next vacation. But now “sunscreens are being recommended by many public health authorities for use on a daily basis by pretty much everybody in the population beginning at 6 months,” Dr. Michele says. With more people using sunscreen more often, it’s even more important to make sure we’re doing this safely.
There’s also an important deadline looming in the background here, Dr. Stevenson explains. President Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act into law back in 2014, which was designed to cut through the backlog of sunscreen applications at the FDA and get new formulas and technologies into consumers’ hands quickly, she explains. One component of this plan requires the FDA to update its sunscreen monograph (the formulation template that companies use to create their products) within five years of the Act’s approval, meaning November 2019. So, the pressure is on.
But how much does this one study really tell us? Actually not that much. Remember that the study is small—24 people tested four sunscreens, meaning only six people tested each product—because it’s a preliminary finding. We’re not meant to draw any major conclusions from this except to know that, yes, more research needs to be done and should be a priority.
Also, remember how the sunscreen was applied in the study: Participants put it on 75 percent of their bodies (basically everything a swimsuit wouldn’t cover) four times a day for four days. These conditions—termed “maximal use”—were meant to replicate the way someone might use sunscreen on a beach vacation, Dr. Michele says. And if you actually follow the instructions on your sunscreen bottle (something too few of us do, really), this is what you should be doing.
But this isn’t necessarily the same type of sunscreen use that most of us actually do day to day. Applying a relatively small amount of sunscreen to your face and neck every morning is not the same as applying a large amount of it to nearly your entire body. It’s not clear whether or not we’d see similar results from someone simply using a daily face moisturizer with SPF 30.
And, finally, remember that we need to balance the unknown possible risks of using these sunscreens with the very painful, real, and possibly deadly risks of not wearing sunscreen, namely sunburns and skin cancer. For now, the known benefits of wearing sunscreen still outweigh the potential risks.
If, after all of these caveats, you are still worried, the bottom line is that you should absolutely keep wearing a sunscreen—but know that you have a lot of options. The sunscreens included in this study were all chemical blockers, which protect the skin by changing UV rays into a form that doesn’t damage skin. If you’re currently using a chemical sunscreen you can easily swap it out for one that relies on physical (mineral) blocker ingredients instead. “If you’re going to be absolutely risk averse,” Dr. Stevenson says, you can look for sunscreens containing only these mineral ingredients, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which would be generally recognized by the FDA as safe and effective (GRASE, in FDA terminology) in the proposed sunscreen rule.
The bottom line is, we don’t currently have conclusive evidence that sunscreen ingredients are doing anything harmful even when they get into your bloodstream. But we do know that sunscreen is one of your best defenses against skin cancer and other types of UV-related skin damage. So, for now, keep wearing sunscreen. And soon, thanks to research like this, we may have even more sunscreen options to choose from.