What you need to know about chemicals in your sunscreen


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News reports have recently raised the alarm about sunscreens. Last summer, several spray sunscreens were recalled after benzene, a known carcinogen, was discovered in them. Other research has shown that some sunscreen ingredients can seep through the skin into your bloodstream, and the Food and Drug Administration has asked manufacturers for more data on their safety. And Hawaii has banned certain ingredients over concerns they could harm ocean reefs.

With all that, you might be wondering if sunscreen is still worth it.

The short answer: Absolutely. While these issues are of real concern, at this point the risks are more theoretical than proven. Regular use of sunscreen, on the other hand, clearly prevents skin cancer and saves lives. Some research suggests it may lower the risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, by about 50 percent.

In addition, there are smart choices you can make to ensure that the sunscreens you choose for yourself and your family are safe, effective, and perhaps better for the environment.

Why your sunscreen isn’t working

To help you do that, Consumer Reports tests dozens of sunscreens, identifying which ones work best and which ones don’t protect you as well. We also tested every spray sunscreen in our reviews for benzene: they were all free of the harmful chemical. (Read “Benzene, a known carcinogen, is found in some spray sunscreens, deodorants and other products” to learn more about benzene in aerosol personal care products.) We also delved into the research and spoke with experts to clarify the potential health and environmental health risks caused by some sunscreen ingredients. Here are answers to some important questions.

Recent research has raised some concerns about chemical sunscreens — which use one or more of a dozen chemical ingredients approved for use in the United States to filter out the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

In 2019, the FDA announced it wanted more information about the safety of those ingredients, including whether they are absorbed systemically — through the skin into the bloodstream. That’s partly because Americans now use a lot more sunscreen than in the past, and because today’s products contain more combinations and higher concentrations of the ingredients.

Soon after, FDA scientists published studies showing that six common chemical ingredients — avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone — do indeed enter the bloodstream.

The FDA emphasizes that absorption does not mean these ingredients are unsafe. But the amounts absorbed were higher than the levels the FDA said would exempt them from safety testing, so more research is needed.

“The key question is whether that systemic absorption actually causes damage,” said Kathleen Suozzi, assistant professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

A lab found a carcinogen in dozens of sunscreens. Here’s what those findings really mean.

Definitive answers may be years away. “Generating the kind of information the FDA wants is difficult, time consuming and very expensive,” said Mark Chandler, president of ACT Solutions, which consults with sunscreen and other cosmetics manufacturers about product formulation.

Avoid Chemical Sunscreens?

The FDA, the American Academy of Dermatology and independent researchers say there is no need for people to stop using chemical sunscreens.

“These UV filters have been used by millions of people for years, and there are no noticeable systemic effects,” said Henry W. Lim, a leading sunscreen researcher and past chairman of the dermatology division at Henry Ford Health in Michigan, who has also consulted with makers of sunscreens. “I still feel very comfortable saying this is a safe way to prevent skin cancer and other sun damage.”

But some of those chemicals may be more concerning than others. “Oxybenzone and, to a lesser extent, octinoxate have emerged as the biggest concerns,” says Lim.

That’s mainly because preliminary animal research suggests that oxybenzone could interfere with hormone production, which could theoretically affect fertility, puberty and thyroid function. But research on sunscreens done on humans has not raised any major concerns. While a 2020 review of 29 studies looking at the health effects of oxybenzone and octinoxate said more research was needed, it also found no clear links to health problems.

Still, to play it safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents don’t use oxybenzone-containing sunscreens on children. And people of any age who want to avoid sunscreens containing any of these chemicals can easily do so, as manufacturers now use them less frequently. Few sunscreens in our reviews contain oxybenzone and none have octinoxate.

It’s true that sunscreens containing the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide—which work by creating a physical barrier on your skin—are not absorbed through the skin and do not enter the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, those mineral sunscreens may not be as effective as products with the most efficient chemical filters, Chandler says. All of the mineral sunscreens CR has tested appear in the middle or bottom of our ratings.

3.4 million Americans could be diagnosed with skin cancer by 2022

One possible reason: It takes a lot of titanium or zinc to make a product with a high SPF, Chandler says, and it’s hard to do that without making the sunscreen thick, gloppy, and hard to put on. In addition, the minerals sometimes clump together in the product so that they are not spread evenly over the skin, creating gaps in the protection.

Try ‘reef safe’ products?

Some research suggests that oxybenzone and octinoxate may threaten coral in ocean reefs and harm other marine life. So far, that connection has mainly been studied at high doses and in the lab, not in the real world. And in research on sunscreen chemicals in ocean water, the amounts detected, even on popular beaches, are well below the levels associated with damage in lab studies.

Still, potential concerns have prompted Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and some other locations to ban sunscreens containing both ingredients. And some sunscreen manufacturers are now labeling their products “reef safe.” In most cases, the term is used when a product does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. But the FDA doesn’t regulate the term, so it doesn’t have a defined meaning.

So if you want a product without oxybenzone or octinoxate, it’s best to check the ingredients list.

Does a spray or lotion work better?

Used properly, both can do their job well.

But sprays can be tricky to apply. “The droplets can spread in the air, making it easy to miss areas on your skin,” says Lim. To prevent that, spray sunscreen on the palm of your hand and then rub it in. It’s best to hold the nozzle just an inch from your skin, spray until you see a film on your skin, and then rub it in.

Also, be careful not to inhale the spray, as the ingredients can irritate or even damage your lungs. (For that reason, the experts at CR say it’s best not to use sprays on children.) Spraying it into your hand can also help prevent inhalation. Never spray directly into your face and be careful about using sprays when the wind is blowing. The spray may blow into your face and mouth, or spread and not cover your skin enough.

Skipping sunscreen when you cover up?

Not quite. You still need it on exposed skin. Experts point to vast amounts of research linking sun exposure to about 90 percent of skin cancers, and the proven effectiveness of sunscreens at blocking cancer-causing UV rays.

In rare cases, dark-skinned people can develop skin cancer. But sunscreen doesn’t help.

But covering up means you can use a lot less sunscreen. For example, if you wear a long-sleeved swim shirt or rash guard instead of a traditional bathing suit, you don’t need to apply sunscreen to your arms, back, and chest. That can reduce the amount of sunscreen you have to use on your body that gets into your skin or the ocean.

Dermatologists say sunscreen should never be your only defense against UV rays. Try to avoid the sun at its strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. And when you’re outside, especially during those hours, cover up, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and seek shade whenever possible.

Concerns about sunscreen ingredients being absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream have prompted some researchers to look for alternatives, said Christopher Bunick, an associate professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.

Researchers there are investigating formulas that encapsulate chemical sunscreen ingredients, allowing them to stay on the skin and provide protection without being absorbed.

It is also possible that some of the sunscreen ingredients used in Europe and Canada are approved for use here. A few are stuck in the FDA approval process. “So this is a glimmer of hope we can see eventually [them] used in sunscreens in the US,” says Lim.

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

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