Now that summer has arrived, outdoor activities have officially been kicked into high gear for millions of people across the country, which means lathering up with sunscreen.
However, according to data provided earlier this year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are certain chemicals in sunscreens that are being absorbed into the human body at rates high enough to cause concern about possible toxicity in the bloodstream.
But local spokespersons believe the small sampling isn't enough data to imply that sunscreens are unsafe. Using sunscreen lotions are still recommended to protect against skin cancer caused by the sun.
FDA’s study and proposal
According to its website, the FDA has been regulating sunscreen to ensure safety and effectiveness standards since the 1970s.
In February, the agency took significant action when it released a proposal aimed at addressing sunscreen ingredient safety, dosage forms, the sun protection factor and broad-spectrum requirements.
The proposal was aimed specifically at non-prescription and over-the-counter chemical sunscreens, the agency noted. The FDA also proposed new updates on labels of sunscreen products, making it easier for consumers to understand exactly what they are putting on their bodies.
During the study — which appeared last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association — 24 adults applied either a sunscreen spray, lotion or cream to their bodies four times a day for four consecutive days, with each person covering three-quarters of his or her body during each application.
Researchers then drew 30 blood samples from each participant over the course of a week to determine whether the chemicals found in sunscreens really do absorb into a person’s skin.
The result was that levels of such chemical sunscreen ingredients as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule did increase in a person’s bloodstream after sunscreen use, the agency said.
Researchers said further testing is needed to determine what levels of absorption are considered safe and if an increase in those chemical levels also increase the risk for birth defects, cancer or other medical issues.
Another byproduct of the study is that the FDA is proposing to raise the maximum proposed labeled SPF from 50+ to 60+, and it’s also requiring any sunscreen labeled SPF 15 or higher to be broad spectrum — which protects the body from both the UVA and UVB rays of the sun. The agency is also urging sunscreen manufacturers to put new alphabetical labeling on their products, along with requiring sunscreens with SPF below 15 to include the words “See Skin Cancer/Skin Aging alert” on the front panel.
According to the FDA, sunscreen manufacturers have been given a November 2019 deadline to comply with the new labeling requirements.
Where does that lead consumers?
While the new FDA findings and proposal can be confusing for consumers, Dr. Melanie Kingsley, director of Cosmetic Dermatology and Laser Surgery at IU Health, said she hopes people won’t become too concerned with the results that they don't use sun protection at all.
“I think that overall the question is are these chemicals leading to cancer?” she said. “People are reading it [FDA’s findings] and thinking, ‘Wait, if I wear these types of sunscreen, it’s going to cause cancer,’ and that’s not true. It’s more important to wear sunscreen than not because you’re going to get skin cancer and have sun damage [if you forego sunscreen].”
Kingsley also noted that sun damage doesn’t just appear overnight either, she said, but it’s the result of DNA damage over time.
“A sunburn is the worst thing,” she said. “A sunburn is such an intense shock to your skin and cells. And the DNA damage over time, even though you don’t see it, that’s when if you have moles, those moles might turn into a melanoma because of that exposure and the changes in the DNA.
Experts say that even melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — can be cured if caught early enough.
But it all comes down to sun protection, the doctors said, something that even FDA researchers agree with when it comes to skin care.
Protecting your skin
As far as types of sunscreen, Kingsley also noted that she urges people to use creams over sprays, at least for the first coat of sunscreen. When you reapply, she said, that’s when you can opt for the spray.
The American Cancer Society reminds everyone that sunscreen is a filter – and it does not block all UV rays.
“Because of this, sunscreen should not be thought of as your first line of defense,” the ACS website reports. “Consider sunscreen as one part of your skin cancer protection plan, especially if staying in the shade and wearing protective clothing aren’t available as your first options.”
Sunscreens are available in many forms – lotions, creams, ointments, gels, sprays, wipes, and lip balms, to name a few.
The American Cancer Society encourages activity and being outside, but also suggests ways to limit the amount of UV rays on one’s body.
“Some people think about sun protection only when they spend a day at the lake, beach, or pool. But sun exposure adds up day after day, and it happens every time you are in the sun,” the ACS website explained.
The ACS promotes a catchy phrase if you plan to be out in the sun: Slip! Slop! Slap! And Wrap! The ACS says it means:
• Slip on a shirt.
• Slop on sunscreen.
• Slap on a hat.
• Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and skin around them.
One way to limit your exposure to UV light is to avoid being outdoors in direct sunlight too long.
“This is particularly important between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV light is strongest,” according to the ACS. “If you are unsure how strong the sun’s rays are, use the shadow test: If your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun’s rays are the strongest, and it’s important to protect yourself.”
Dr. Lana Schmidt, M.D., a dermatologist with Springfield Clinic, Effingham division, said until there is more information related to this sample study, people should continue to use sunscreen.
“Until more information is available, this study should not influence or change peoples’ sunscreen habits,” said Schmidt, who has been in the field for 20 years. “A study that shows chemicals in sunscreen are systematically absorbed does not imply that they are unsafe. No association has been made at this point between absorption of sunscreen chemicals and the direct harm to humans.”
In the meantime, everyone is encouraged to be conscious of the amount of time spent in the sun without shading or protective clothing, for starters.
“As the study indicated and suggested, people should continue to use sunscreen along with other sun protective measures,” said Schmidt. “Skin cancer is the number one cancer seen in the United States, and some skin cancers are even fatal. There is scientific proof that using sunscreen along with sun protective measures -- such as limiting time in the sun and wearing protective clothing, -- significantly decreases the risk of skin cancer.”
Schmidt said, at this point in time, the benefits of using sunscreen outweigh the risks.
Recently, Kerri Schackmann of Effingham was exiting the community pool with her three children. While healthy habits are important she said there’s more to protecting oneself than just sunscreen alone.
She said they opt to use “physical barriers” such as hats or umbrellas when possible, but she also believes that the benefits of sunscreens outweigh the risks.
“It is known that the risk from UV damage is great,” said Schackmann. “But, with this study, we should do our research and then do what is best for our self and our family. We should protect ourselves as best we can.”
A lifeguard at Effingham’s Area Kluthe Memorial Pool said her job equates to hours at a time in the sun. She agrees sun protection is important.
“I believe it is good to use sunscreen, especially if you are going to be out in the sun for several hours, like we do when we work here at the pool,” said Bella Kronewitter, 15, of Effingham.
Lifeguards are given the option to use umbrellas, too, to block some dangerous UV rays during the daytime.
Deena Mosbarger, public information officer for the Clay & Effingham County Health Departments said she contacted the Illinois Department of Public Health in order to get the latest opinion from this recent study.
“The American Academy of Dermatology and the Food and Drug Administration are both reputable organizations quoting valid and reliable studies,” said Mosbarger. “Both have determined that more research is required and people should continue to monitor the news as more information becomes available.”
Studies are conclusive that excess sun exposure is a significant risk factor for skin cancer and other UV damage, Mosbarger said.
“One of the best strategies known to reduce this risk is using sunscreen with an SPF value of at least 15,” said Mosbarger. “Other strategies include wearing protective clothing that adequately covers your skin, wearing sunglasses or a hat that shades your entire head and face, and seeking shade during periods of peak sunlight.”
Kim Dunlap is a reporter for the EDN's sister paper, the Kokomo Tribune
Dawn Schabbing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-347-7151, ext. 138