You've probably heard your entire life how important it is to wear sunscreen to protect your skin from sunburn and cancer. While this is true, in recent times it's been found that certain sunscreen ingredients may be hazardous to human health and the environment.
You may be asking yourself now, "but doesn't the FDA regulate ingredients?" While this is also true, unfortunately there are significant gaps in recent research data and cooperation from manufacturers. This has led organizations like the Environmental Working Group to step in and try to fill in those gaps and inform the public of potential hazards in their personal care products, including sun care.
We want to help spread the word about sunscreen safety because we know that just wearing it isn't the end of the story. That's why we created this guide to help you better understand how sunscreen regulations currently work and what you can do to make safer sunscreen choices today.
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How Sunscreens Escaped Safety Testing
Several decades ago, the FDA began requiring manufacturers to do more safety testing of their products if they could be absorbed into the body at levels above 0.5 nanograms per milliliter. Below that level, it's thought that an ingredient or drug has a low risk of causing harm.
To the FDA’s credit, they have been urging companies that make sunscreens to do more safety studies of their products, but for various reasons, it just never happened. These sunscreen makers have been allowed to sell their products under an assumption that the active ingredients they use are “GRASE,” or generally recognized as safe and effective. Due to this loophole, sunscreen essentially was grandfathered into the FDA’s surveillance system without any real safety testing.
Recent reports about the health effects of sunscreens with chemical ingredients, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone, have raised additional concerns. Although these chemicals have been proven to protect skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, they may be unsafe on another level. Some experts are concerned that these chemicals may be absorbed through the skin, leading to skin irritation, hormonal disruption — even skin cancer.
Further Safety Testing on Chemical Sunscreen Required
Last year, the FDA dropped a bit of a bombshell after testing revealed that four of the most common UV filters in chemical sunscreens are absorbed by the body in substantial amounts, and can stay there for days, something that wasn’t well-known before.
Sunscreen Ingredients Flagged For Safety Testing:
As a result, the FDA has called for those ingredients, along with another eight, to undergo additional safety testing before they can be considered GRASE. It has asked sunscreen makers to do that testing themselves. So far, those studies -- which are supposed to look at effects on cancer and reproduction -- haven’t been done. That’s despite the fact that the FDA gave sunscreen makers a November 2019 deadline to deliver more information.
The problem was made even more clear after the EWG released their 2020 Guide To Sunscreens, which found that 75% of sunscreen products either offer inferior UV protection or contain worrisome ingredients.
Additional Concerns About Kids Sunscreen
One big knowledge gap in the study of sunscreen is of concern for kids. There’s very little information about how they might be absorbing sunscreen ingredients or what those ingredients might be doing to a growing body.
For children especially, many Dr.'s recommend mineral-based sunscreens. Specifically those that include sunscreens that contain the ingredients zinc oxide, like our ThinkSport Kids Safe Sunscreen. The FDA and Environmental Working Group agree those ingredients are safe.
“Mineral sunscreen, if formulated correctly and applied correctly, is very effective”- Kanade Shinkai MD, voting member of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) regulatory policy committee.
Waiting for the FDA and big sunscreen manufacturers to do the right thing isn’t a viable solution for parents trying to keep their family safe today. Until these tests are performed, it’s just safer to go with a non-toxic mineral based sunscreen.
ThinkSport Kids Safe Sunscreen or ThinkBaby Safe Sunscreen are safer alternatives and do not contain any of the ingredients flagged by the FDA for further testing. Not only do Think Sunscreens avoid biologically harmful chemicals for humans, they’re also Reef Safe, biodegradable and more environmentally-friendly than other similar brands.
Protecting Your Family From Untested Sunscreen Ingredients
It’s important to note, the FDA says that while the UV filters in chemical sunscreens can’t be considered safe, that doesn’t mean they’re unsafe. Scientists just don’t know.
“It’s a little bit scary because we just don’t know what the biological effect of sunscreen in your blood is.”- Alok Vij, MD a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
So what should you do if you want to protect yourself or your kids from the uncertainties of untested ingredients?
3 Ways To Avoid Questionable Sunscreen Ingredients
The lack of data and testing can make choosing a “good” or safer sunscreen harder than it has to be. Here are some quick rules to help you and your family avoid questionable sunscreen ingredients:
1) Avoid Spray Sunscreens
Spray sunscreens have become popular based on ease of use, especially
among parents trying to keep active kids UV protected while on the go. Convenience is great, but users need to consider that Aerosolized Sunscreens pose a serious inhalation risk. The FDA has expressed concerns based on this matter but it has not taken major action.
Not only can these hurt our lungs, but they can also damage the environment. Spray sunscreens are more likely to contain chemicals that are harmful to our coral reefs, ozone, and pose additional environmental risk.
Physical mineral-based sunscreens may be a little less convenient, but the peace of mind they provide more than makes up for it. Sunscreen Sticks, like ThinkSport Kids Sunscreen Stick, are a great option for parents looking for both convenience and safety.
2) Avoid Super High SPFs
We’ve covered this topic several times but long story short, there’s no scientific reason to buy sunscreen greater than SPF 50.
The increase in protection becomes much smaller as the SPF gets higher - SPF 30 provides 97% UVB protection while SPF 100 provides 99%.
On top of that, the ingredients used to boost SPF in chemical sunscreens are not favorable and could cause hormone disruption and allergic skin reactions.
Also the higher the SPF, the less UVA protection it is. That's because SPF only measures how much UVB protection you're getting. But UVB isn't the only type of UV radiation we need protection from. It's important to strike balance in UVB and UVA protection - which is why it's better to choose a sunscreen that's broad spectrum at 50 SPF.
If you're reapplying often, this will actually protect you better than say 100 SPF. Especially because you won't have the false belief that you can stay in the sun longer just because you're wearing a high SPF sunscreen.
In 2012 the FDA proposed a rule that sets the SPF limit going forward to SPF 50+. For the full explanation of SPF, checkout our article Sunscreen SPF 101.
3) Avoid Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
In short, the hormones created and released by the glands in your endocrine system control nearly all the processes in your body. These include your metabolism, emotions, mood, sexual function and even sleep. This goes double for teenagers and kids whose endocrine systems are in hyperdrive as they grow and develop.
Reducing or eliminating your exposure to known endocrine disruptors can have huge benefits for your overall health.
For example, the chemical oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body. It has also been linked to pregnancy complications and can trigger allergic reactions. Data are preliminary, but reliable sources have found links between higher concentrations of oxybenzone and a number of health harms.
The FDA and EWG both closely monitor known endocrine disrupting chemicals, but they are still present in far too many sunscreen products on the market.
For more information, checkout the EWG’s Guide: The Trouble With Ingredients in Sunscreens
We hope that this guide has provided some valuable insight to help guide you toward safer sunscreen choices. At Think our goal is to be part of the solution and help others join the movement toward safer, sustainable, and functional products.