Fact: the FDA considers sunscreen an over-the-counter drug. Weird, right? Actually, it’s not weird at all: the FDA says a drug is “anything that’s intended to diagnose, cure, mitigate or prevent disease.” Since sunscreen uses active ingredients to protect your skin against sun damage in a variety of forms, it’s considered a drug you can purchase without a prescription. And it’s the FDA’s job to know if a drug — like sunscreen — is safe for chronic, long-term use.
So, when it comes to sunscreen, what’s safe? Breaking news out of the FDA this year: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only two sunscreen active ingredients considered Generally Regarded As Safe and Effective ( GRASE). These are both mineral-based active ingredients. And out of 16 active ingredients commonly used in sunscreens, only mineral ingredients have enough data for the FDA to consider them safe. The rest are chemical…sooo…you do the math.
After revisiting these active ingredients through the lens of modern-day regulations, FDA scientists now recognize more research is needed on the safety of sunscreen chemicals. Watch for more in November 2019; that’s when the studies are due for completion.
So, let’s take a look at your sunscreen ingredients right now. Which active ingredient does your sunscreen use? Because each one has its own way of protecting skin, through different ingredients— all adding up to two different kinds of sunscreens: chemical, or mineral. We’re going to break down the difference between them — and trust us, it’s very interesting info. Ahem. Here we go.
On the surface, here’s the most obvious difference: mineral sunscreen is a simpler, less fussy form of sun protection, but the differences go deeper than that. Deeper than skin-deep, even.
Chemical sunscreen is VERY easily absorbed. Research shows that chemical UV filters don’t stop at the skin; in fact, they travel into systemic circulation. Chemical sunscreens — especially oxybenzone — have been in found in blood plasma, urine, the placenta and even breast milk. They’re lipophilic — meaning they like to accumulate in fat tissue and hang out there — and can easily breach the blood-brain barrier.
Let’s pause here for a sec and let that sink in. Pretty sobering stuff, right?
About 25% of sunscreen is not absorbed by skin. So in a pool, lake, river or ocean, that 25% gets released into the water after 20 minutes. In natural bodies of water, that’s toxic to marine life, reefs included. But for humans, it’s even worse in a pool; chemical sunscreen simply contaminates the pool water, and reacts questionably with chlorine. Over time, this can reach potentially toxic levels in pool water — especially in plastic outdoor pools. Gross.
Oxybenzone, in particular, is quite worrisome. It has a hazard rating of 8 out of 10 on EWG’s cosmetics database. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) routinely finds 96% of people tested have oxybenzone in their urine. This is troubling, because a 2016 study in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that exposure to oxybenzone induces various hormone disrupting effects, like mimicking estrogen and acting as an anti-androgenic (it’ll decrease testosterone). Translation: oxybenzone throws the endocrine system out of whack, and messes with hormones.
And — this is HUGE — the American Academy of Pediatricians advises against using a sunscreen containing oxybenzone. Because hormone disruption.
Oxybenzone doesn’t act alone. It’s one of the ingredients under review by the FDA, but it has a few accomplices. Oxybenzone has to partner up with other UV filters that have been shown to have adverse health effects, like avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene or ecamsule.
But. It’s not all doom and gloom! Here’s some sunshine for you:
Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, are made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and are not likely to be absorbed, especially if they are larger, non-nano particle size.
In fact, zinc oxide is the safest available sunscreen ingredient, and is unique as the only active ingredient providing true broad spectrum protection – UVA1, UVA2, and UVB. It’s also the only FDA-approved Broad Spectrum UVA/UVB protector.
So let’s review. When it comes to sunscreen, you have two choices:
1. A sunscreen with active ingredients that chemically protect you from the sun, but can be absorbed into your body and can potentially cause adverse side effects, or
Keep in mind: Not all mineral sunscreens are created equal, so, this is a gentle reminder to be sure and read the entire ingredient label. And when in doubt, go with the ray-fighting coat of armor that is mineral sunscreen. Your body — and the planet — will thank you.