Recently, an email crossed my screen regarding breaking news on the dangers of sunscreen. It was explaining that commonly-used chemical sunscreen ingredients are being absorbed into our bloodstream and that the side effects are yet to be discovered. Part of this important discovery is that once these chemicals enter the body, they stay there for an indefinite amount of time.
As FDA regulations have been developing over the last 20+ years 6 chemical sunscreen ingredients were grandfathered into the approval process. Essentially, they weren’t tested as thoroughly as compounds are tested today. However, there is a 7th ingredient that cropped up during that time span which we will explore.
Understanding Sunscreen Ingredients
When you read the ingredient panel on sunscreen you’ll notice Active Ingredients are listed at the top. These “actives” can be placed into two classes: physical (UV reflectors) or chemical (UV absorbers). Physical sunscreens include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Among these two, zinc provides broad spectrum protection (UVA and UVB), however, it leaves a noticeable white film on the skin. Titanium dioxide protects mainly from UVB’s (which are burning rays), yet it’s more transparent on the skin.
The 7 most common chemical sunscreens found in the US include: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, octinoxate, and ecamsule.
Ecamsule is the newest ingredient on this list. It has been hailed by some as the best sunscreen ingredient in recent years. However, there is a problem with ecamsule: the ingredient failed the FDA’s approval processes. Ecamsule, otherwise known as Mexoryl SX or XL, was patented by L’Oréal in the 80’s. Ecamsule was then submitted to the FDA and was rejected because they did not provide enough testing data to satisfy the requirements. In 2006 L’Oréal was allowed to sell sunscreens containing ecamsule due to what I call a loophole. On the contrary, the EU and Canada approved ecamsule in its entirety and have been using it ever since.
The latest findings show that ecamsule, like many of the other chemical sunscreens, is absorbed by the body in substantial amounts, and can stay there for days, something that wasn’t well-known before.
After researching, I found several US brands containing ecamsule, however each company is owned by L’Oreal. These companies include Garnier, Vichy and La Roche-Posay.
The Dangers of Chemical Sunscreens
The dangers of chemical sunscreens are yet to be fully understood. Here is a list of the most commonly-used sunscreen ingredients, along with what dangers are known:
Oxybenzone – Most dangerous. Harmful to coral reefs. Banned in Hawaii. Hormone disruptor: showed estrogenic activity in rats. Strong evidence supporting this. Also highly irritating to the skin.
Octinoxate – Harmful to coral reefs. Banned in Hawaii. Hormone disruptor: mimics estrogen, can bind to thyroid tissue.
Octocrylene – Harmful to coral reefs. Impairs fatty acid metabolism of coral. Banned in the US Virgin Islands. Not a hormone disruptor, but it is a photosensitizer and common allergen.
Chemical Sunscreens That May Not Be Harmful to Marine Life
The sunscreens below have not been proven to be directly harmful to marine life. However, some environmental groups suggest avoiding them out of an abundance of caution. Additionally, I wasn’t able to find any data regarding ecamsule and its effect on marine life.
Avobenzone – On its own, it breaks down very rapidly in sunlight. Approximately 36% is degraded in just 1 hour of sunlight. Therefore, it must be combined with a photostabilizer (octocrylene, ecamsule, parsol SLX) for it to work effectively. Not harmful to marine animals by itself, but depending on which photostabilizer it is combined with, it can become a problem.
Octisalate – Not likely an endocrine disruptor. Can cause irritation or an allergic reaction in some people.
Homosalate – Not likely an endocrine disruptor. Current claims are based on very weak evidence.
Note that Octisalate and Homosalate are “salate derivatives”, meaning they were derived from salicylic acid. Therefore, people who use salicylic acid should not experience irritation from using these sunscreens. Salicylic acid is also the main ingredient in aspirin.
The Dangers of Sunscreens to Coral Reefs and Marine Life
You may have heard the buzz about sunscreens and coral reefs. Maybe it didn’t register because you haven’t visited an area with a coral reef in a while, such as the Caribbean. However, as studies of chemical sunscreens improve they have found that there is a tremendous negative effect on various marine species in all bodies of water, as you can read in this article. Marine microorganisms, phytoplankton, mussels and green algae and sea urchins are affected and it may decrease fertility in fish.
You may feel relief in knowing that as long as you don’t go swimming in the ocean you can continue using sunscreens that aren’t reef safe. When you shower off sunscreen you probably don’t have to worry that the sunscreen will end up in the ocean. Most major cities drain their water into sewage treatment plants.
Chemical Sunscreen, Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Although the studies have not yet shown the exact implications of using chemical sunscreens, we do know that the ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream. As a precaution, babies, children, breastfeeding and pregnant women should avoid these chemical sunscreen ingredients for potential health reasons. As for everyone else, I would suggest avoiding them, as well, for your safety and for our already-compromised sea life.
Disclaimer: Most of the studies that show endocrine-disrupting activity were performed in rats and fish using very high concentrations. Therefore, most experts believe that their effect on a healthy adult should be negligible. However, it’s always a good idea to be overprotective when it comes to your health.
Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreen and White Residue
In some of my previous posts, I have addressed the problem of physical sunscreens leaving white residue or a film on the skin. This is not ideal for people who have darker skin tones. My previous idea was to blend physical sunscreens with chemical sunscreens to get the best of both worlds, as you can see in this post. The best suggestion I can come up with now is to buy a 40+ SPF, physical only, and mix in a foundation color that is a few shades darker than you would normally use. This way you will be diluting the SPF down to a 30 SPF. When you blend the darker foundation with the white sunscreen base it will become lighter and potentially match your skin tone.
Where to Get Safe Sunscreens