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The Skinny on Sunscreen Absorption: What a Methodist Dermatologist Has to Say About It

Today's Medicine
Published: Aug. 16, 2019

 

By now, you may have seen a few articles with terrifying headlines suggesting the sunscreen ingredients your body absorbs could give you cancer.

If you read nothing else in this particular article, read this: DON’T STOP WEARING SUNSCREEN.

 

Active ingredients in sunscreen

A recent study confirmed that at least four active sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

The ingredients studied are:

  • Avobenzone
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octocrylene
  • Ecamsule

Some research suggests that certain amounts of these ingredients in the blood may be linked to a higher risk of cancer in animals. This news has spread confusion, fear and panic among many of my patients.

Here’s what I tell them:

  1. The ingredients studied have been used for years. No negative health effects have ever been reported in humans.
  2. They are chemical sun blockers – which aren’t the only sun blockers.

Chemical blockers work by absorbing the sun’s rays. Physical blockers – which I prefer and recommend – work by sitting on top of the skin, acting as a barrier or shield from the sun’s rays.

You can find physical ingredients – like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – in mineral sunscreen. Mineral sunscreen is generally better tolerated by people with sensitive skin and doesn’t cause coral reef damage like some chemical sunscreens can. However, many people prefer chemical sunscreens because they’re lightweight and easier to rub in.

 

The takeaway on sunscreen

The levels of chemical ingredients that reached the blood in the study (0.5 nanogram per mL of blood) certainly warrant more research. But at this point, avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule aren’t known carcinogens – meaning they haven’t been proven to cause cancer.

Here’s what is a known carcinogen: the sun.

So buy the sunscreen you and your family will actually wear.

But remember this: While sunscreen is a big part of sun protection, it’s only that – a part. I tell all my patients to also:

  • Wear lightweight long-sleeved shirts and pants
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat
  • Wear sunglasses
  • Take advantage of shade when it’s available
  • Try to limit your time outside to early morning and early evening

#PracticeSafeSun. Make sure you’re covered.

More resources

Deirdre Stolmeier

About the Author:

Dr. Deirdre Stolmeier is a dermatologist at Methodist Physicians Clinic West Dodge Medical Plaza. She has a passion for science and service. Her services include full skin exams and diagnosing and treating common skin conditions like psoriasis, acne, eczema, warts and skin cancer.

See More Articles by Deirdre Stolmeier