What the experts say about sunscreen safety

A new study shows sunscreen chemicals can soak into the bloodstream at levels higher than previously thought. But there’s no need to rethink your approach to sun protection just yet, experts say.

In Australia, slip, slop and slapping our way through summer, and whenever the sun is out, has become ingrained into our culture.

Our “sunburnt country” still has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with the majority of cases caused by exposure to UV radiation in sunlight.

But we might be absorbing more sunscreen chemicals into our bloodstream than is safely recommended, according to US federal health officials.

Researchers from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested six of the main active ingredients in sunscreen lotions and sprays, and found that all of the chemicals had higher concentrations in the blood than the FDA’s threshold.

Sunscreen chemicals in the body: What the study found

The FDA findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, confirmed the results of a pilot study conducted by the agency last year.

The new study tested six chemical sunscreen ingredients from four commercially available formulations – three sprays and one lotion – on 48 people.

Investigators tested three chemicals from the first trial – avobenzone, oxybenzone and octocrylene – along with three new ones – homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate.

Those in the study applied the sunscreens over 75 per cent of their body on the first day, then four times a day for three more days.

Researchers found all the chemicals had concentrations greater than 0.5 nanograms per millimetre of blood plasma, which is the FDA’s threshold.

All of the ingredients remained above the threshold at day seven and plasma levels of oxybenzone and homosalate continued to remain above the threshold on day 21.

Is sunscreen safe to use? What the experts say

“Looking at the results, an Australian scientist might say ‘that’s interesting, but I’d like to know more about it before I can judge how dangerous the sunscreens are,” says Professor Ian Rae, of Melbourne University’s School of Chemistry.

“Skin cancer is probably a greater danger than sunscreen.”

Cancer Council Australia national skin cancer committee chair Heather Walker agrees there’s no need for alarm.

“This is a small study of 48 individuals conducted in a lab environment that didn’t mimic real-life conditions,” she says.

“The researchers behind this study themselves say that these results should not discourage people from using sunscreen.”

Epworth Healthcare  director of dermatology Professor Rod Sinclair says Australian sunscreens are regulated by the Department of Health through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and must meet strict testing standards.

“Many ingredients have been in common use for many years with no safety concerns. The FDA will now conduct more research to determine the maximum levels of sunscreen ingredients that are safe to use,” he says.

“The TGA will monitor this and consumers will be alerted if there are any safety concerns identified by the FDA.”

It’s important to keep up all forms of sun protection

In the meantime, says Heather, it’s important to continue using sunscreen alongside other forms of sun protection.

“Skin cancer kills over 2000 Australians each year and two in three Australians will be diagnosed by the age of 70,” she says.

“When the UV is 3 or above, everyone needs to slip, slop, slap, seek (shade) and slide (on sunglasses).”

Written by Liz McGrath.