You might find this question strange coming from a dermatologist. However, recent headlines and studies by the FDA have raised this question. First and foremost, we do know that exposure to the sun, tanning beds, and other ultraviolet light increases one’s risk of developing skin cancer as well as causing the premature aging of the skin. The need for sun exposure for Vitamin D has been debunked since we can get Vitamin D through our diet and dietary supplements. As far as I am concerned, I believe sunscreen should be part of everyone’s daily routine. In fact, I apply sunscreen to my face every day after I shave.
Sunscreens can be broken down into two categories, chemical and non-chemical sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin. When the sun’s damaging rays hit the skin the chemical sunscreens protect the skin by actually absorbing the UV radiation instead of the skin’s structures absorbing the radiation. Non-chemical sunscreens, also known as mineral sunscreens, are not absorbed into the skin but rather sit on the skin’s surface and reflect or refract the UV radiation. Non-chemical sunscreens typically have zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as their ingredients. Both are effective at protecting the skin. I actually use both.
Why the controversy? The FDA recently reported the results of a study that looked at the absorption of chemical sunscreens into our bloodstream. They looked at six ingredients: avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone. What they found was that they were able to detect small amounts of sunscreen ingredients in the bloodstream. However, the subjects were applying sunscreen to 75% of their body surface area and were reapplying multiple times a day. This is more than most people typically use. The study did show some absorption but does not address the meaning of this. We don’t know if this would cause any harm. As of know we do not know if this absorption has any impact on our health.
What should you do? Firstly, we do know that the link between the sun, tanning beds and skin cancer and premature aging is real. I think sun protection and sun avoidance particularly during the hours of 10am and 2pm is important. For my part I do continue to use both chemical and chemical free sunscreens. However, we all have to make decisions that we feel comfortable with. If you are concerned about the safety of chemical sunscreens then I recommend using a chemical free or mineral based sunscreen, seek shade, wear hats, sunglasses and sun-protective clothing. I also recommend an annual skin examination by board-certified dermatologist as well as checking your skin for any new or changing lesions. Live life, have fun but practice “safe sun”.