The Truth about Sunscreen: Is it Safe?

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Sun exposure is the most preventable cause of skin cancer. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that sunscreen is safe to use and effective in preventing skin cancer. For example, the majority of melanoma cases are attributable to ultraviolet light exposure. Additionally, higher sun exposure in childhood and during one’s lifetime is associated with an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. Just one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double a person’s chance of developing melanoma. Experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between ages 15 and 20 increases one’s melanoma risk by 80 percent and non-melanoma skin cancer risk by 68 percent. Research has shown that regular use of sunscreen reduces this risk.

New FDA Regulations

Sunscreens on the market today contain one or more active ingredients — compounds that absorb, scatter or reflect UV light — and are regulated as over-the-counter drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has safety and effectiveness regulations that govern the manufacturing and marketing of all sunscreen products, including safety data on its ingredients. On February 21st, 2019 the FDA proposed new sunscreen regulations that include;

  • Changes to the 16 currently marketed active ingredients
    • Discontinuing PABA and trolamine salicylate as safe and effective ingredients
    • Keeping zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as safe and effective ingredients
    • Requesting more testing on the other 12 ingredients
  • Increasing the maximum SPF value on sunscreen labels from SPF 50+ to SPF 60+
  • Requiring sunscreens with an SPF value of 15 or higher to also provide broad spectrum protection (meaning it prevents against both UVA and UVB light)
  • Requiring the amount of protection against UVA radiation to increase as SPF increases
  • New sunscreen label requirements to assist consumers in more easily identifying key information including active ingredients, SPF, broad spectrum and water resistance
  • Including wipes, towelettes, body washes, shampoos and other dosage forms of sunscreen as new drugs that will need to go through the approval process

Chemical Ingredients

Recent studies have suggested that some of the key chemicals used in some sunscreens, such as oxybenzone, may be damaging to coral reefs. However, there are no studies to suggest that currently available sunscreens are toxic or harmful to humans. Instead, we know that unprotected ultraviolet radiation from the sun is a major risk factor for skin cancer. The FDA will continue to work closely with sunscreen manufacturers to test and gather more data to ensure ingredients’ safety and efficacy.

Check Your Sunscreen

On the whole, the benefits of sunscreens far outweigh the risks to humans. The new FDA regulations confirm that sunscreens are crucial for preventing skin cancer and protecting skin from sun damage. Zinc and titanium sunscreen offer the broadest spectrum of coverage and protect against both UVA and UVB light. Check that your sunscreen is meeting current recommendations for good sun protection, including that it is at least SPF 30, broad-spectrum, and water-resistant. Our board-certified dermatologists can expertly answer any further questions regarding the safety or efficacy of sunscreen ingredients.

-Dr. Reid

View the FDA’s full release notes.
View the AAD’s response.
Dr. Creswell shares his insights on safe sunscreen for coral reefs.

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