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What’s In Your Sunscreen?

Many times, when I ask my patients if they use sunscreen or protect their skin from the sun, I hear, “I don’t use sunscreen. I don’t like how it makes me feel greasy.” or “No, I don’t like all those chemicals.” or sometimes patients reply “Yes,” when the answer is really no, for a variety of reasons (ie: they don’t think about it, they are out in the sun longer than intended, they are lazy, they don’t trust the FDA or government, they don’t want to be told what to do, they think sunscreen causes cancer, etc.). These are all appropriate responses.  Sunscreens do feel greasy, AND they are typically made up of synthetic chemical combinations, AND we don’t know everything about the lotions we are slathering onto our skin. 

What we do know is that excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays (via sunlight) can have damaging effects on our body.  The energy our skin is exposed to, through UV rays, causes the skin to burn, encourages breakdown and damage of the structural components of skin (which leads to wrinkles and permanent discoloration) and can alter DNA, which causes typical regulatory mechanisms of cells to malfunction, allowing for cancer cells to form.  

This article will help you understand the different types of sunscreen and chemical ingredients used so you can choose how to protect your skin from the damage and destruction incurred after repeated exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun.

You first need a brief history of chemical licensing in America to understand where we are today in regards to licensing and labeling practices of skin and beauty products in the U.S.  Over the past century, our culture has shifted dramatically; from a small town, barter-for-service, self-reliant and self-sufficient way of living to an effective, highly-efficient and completely interdependent global market and economic system. The federal government first became involved in protecting consumers from unsafe and mislabeled food products from crossing state lines over 100 years ago. As our country continued to develop and advance, it became evident that pharmaceuticals and consumer products needed clear rules and meticulous practices in place to evaluate their safety and efficacy before being released unleashed to the public. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was established after a series of deaths occurred (related to untested drugs in the 30’s) to help protect consumers from unsafe and harmful products related to foods, drugs, medical devices, and cosmetics. 

However, advancements in technology and trade were faster than the original laws could be amended and America has ended up with a plethora of chemicals used in all sorts of products from pesticides for crop production to steroid injections used to treat herniated discs. In 2012, there were approximately 84,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States in all sorts of products. Many of the chemicals were “grandfathered” into the system because they had been used in various products for 50 to 100 years and the rules at the time of licensure application weren’t as stringent as they are now.  This means we don’t have comprehensive safety data on the majority of chemicals used in personal care products. Testing and safety initially was the responsibility of the manufacturer, which inherently creates some bias. New laws passed in 2016, requires comprehensive testing on chemicals, both new and previously registered ones.  As you can imagine, however, going back and testing previously registered chemicals will be a lengthy process. 

In light of this understanding, there are outspoken critics of sunscreens regarding their safety on personal health and the environment. As you do your own research, you may find yourself getting sucked into the deep abyss of the internet and wonder what’s right, what’s safe, what to use and what to do.  Evaluate the credentials, training, and experience of the author of the article or blog you read. Educate yourself with the facts and then make meaningful decisions regarding your health. As we explore the world of chemicals, let’s look at the basic types of sunscreen products, how they work and possible concerns because of the chemical ingredients used.

There are two basic types of sunscreen. 

I. Inorganic filters are typically referred to as mineral sunscreens.  They use inorganic particles to physically block the sun’s rays by reflecting and scattering ultraviolet waves before they penetrate the skin.  These physical barriers used to look like white paint on the skin but advancements in technology now allow us to make these inorganic, physical barriers a clear and smooth protective coat on the skin using nanotechnology.  These nanoparticles are so small they are invisible to the human eye.

The most common ingredients in mineral sunscreens are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.  Some are marketed as “natural”, “organic” or “reef safe”.  These are marketing terms that lack a clear definition. Zinc-based products will offer good broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays, preventing deep structural damage to the skin as well as decreasing the risk of sunburn, while titanium-based formulations shieldless of the UVA rays that are primarily responsible for premature aging and wrinkles.

II. The other major type of sunscreen uses chemical blockers or organic filters, meaning they are derived from living matter. These chemical blockers are absorbed into the skin (which is why they need to be applied 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure) where they have the ability to absorb and convert the energy in the UV rays into heat, which prevents UV penetration into the skin. Chemical sunscreens are more difficult to sort through because of the vast types of chemical combinations that are used to achieve broad-spectrum coverage with adequate SPF protection. 

Here are a few common ingredients worth noting.  These chemicals may be used in a variety of products, not just sunscreen. 

  • Oxybenzone is extremely effective at shielding the skin from UVA and UVB rays, hence it is widely used in sunscreens.  The concerns are that oxybenzone may cause allergic reactions in some people, it is one of the most damaging influences on coral-reef systems (along with tourism, pollution, global warming and fishing practices) and traces of oxybenzone have been found in blood samples of some people.  This may be because sunscreen is more frequently and generously applied than it used to be because people are asked to wear it every day, not just on a day spent playing at the beach.  Some animal studies show that it may have a mild estrogenic effect, however, significant amounts would need to be applied to achieve this. For these reasons, the percent of oxybenzone allowed in sunscreen has been limited to allow health researchers more time to study the effects of this chemical.  Oxybenzone has been used since the 1970s without reports of harmful side effects in humans, but still merits close observation.
  • Octinoxate has also been implicated as having negative effects on coral health.  Sunscreens that say they are “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly” are generally referring to the fact they don’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate.  These terms are not clearly defined or regulated by the FDA.
  • Para Amino Benzoic Acid (PABA) may cause photosensitivity or allergic reactions in a small percentage of people. If you experience these types of sensitivities, look for “PABA free” on the label.
  • Parabens are preservatives that are found in some skin-care products & sunscreens and may have some environmental concerns or general health questions.  Products labeled “paraben-free” don’t contain ingredients such as methylparaben or butylparaben.
  • Fragrances should be avoided as they may trigger allergic reactions or burn and irritate your eyes.
  • Nanoparticles (as mentioned earlier) are tiny particles that we can’t visibly see but are able to easily pass through cell membranes.  This may be very helpful in some circumstances, however, may be a concern in other situations. Nanoparticles are a relatively new technology and their properties are not fully understood yet, thus be aware of this when selecting a sunscreen.  To date, detrimental effects from nanoparticles have not been found. Marketing terms of “nano-free” or “non-nano” are not clearly defined by the FDA but indicates that this specialized type of technology hasn’t been used.   

NOTE:  There are new sunscreen ingredients awaiting FDA approval. Europe classifies sunscreen as a cosmetic and has different regulatory standards than the US where sunscreen is classified as an over-the-counter drug. Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX) is one newer filter available in the US.  It is a good UVA absorber. Tinosorb is a good filter of UVA and UVB rays, but is still awaiting approval.

Some kind of chemical vehicle is required to allow sunscreen to be absorbed into the skin in order to prevent the UV rays from penetrating into the dermal layers.  Other common products include salicylates (e.g. octisalate, homosalate, and trolamine salicylate), which are weak UVB absorbers. They require a combination with other filters, such as cinnamates (which are potent UVB absorbers) or avobenzone (which is a UVA absorber but may be rendered ineffective in the presence of other specific ingredients).

Even though all this talk about chemicals, filters, particles and substances may be a little unsettling, think about your daily routine for just a minute.  According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average American woman uses 12 different beauty products in her daily routine, putting an average of 168 chemicals on her body each day.

So, let’s take a second to look at what we know.  We KNOW the UV rays from the sun cause damage.  It is typically manifested as cancer, burns, photoaging, wrinkles or age spots.  We also KNOW that sunscreen significantly reduces risk and exposure to UV rays.  

Continue to have FUN this summer! Be active. Hang out with your friends and family. Go on some outdoor adventures. Go play at the waterpark or pool. Just remember to protect your skin. If you take good care of your skin, your skin will help take good care of you!


Haley Pledger, PA
Women’s Care
Matthew Walton, DO
Austin Bills, DO
Family Medicine
Aaron Fausett, PA
Family Medicine
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