How Safe is Your Sunscreen?

Young woman choosing sunscreen lotion at the pharmacy

The American Cancer Society recommends the use of sunscreen as one way to protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays. UV rays from the sun – and from tanning beds and lamps – damage the skin and can cause skin cancer. But some health groups, consumer groups, and environmental groups have raised concerns over ingredients found in some sunscreens and their potential effects on people and nature.

Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, recommends people buy and use sunscreens that are sold and marketed in the US because of limited information about the safety and effectiveness of sunscreens produced in other countries. “Each person should make an individual decision that’s most appropriate for themselves,” says Lichtenfeld. “But the experts who have looked at the data have concluded that the potential risk of not using sunscreen far outweighs the risks of using sunscreen.” Lichtenfeld, who has had skin cancer himself, says he uses sunscreen on his face every day.

Rules and regulations

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers sunscreen to be a cosmetic. This means companies that make sunscreen need to share their data about safety and effectiveness with the FDA. It also means there are certain rules about how the products are marketed and labeled.

Sunscreen labels should list their active and inactive ingredients. All sunscreens contain inactive ingredients, such as water or oil. There are also acceptable active ingredients, which are necessary since they actually protect your skin from UV rays.

Because some sunscreen active ingredients may be absorbed through the skin and enter the body, it’s important to have data from studies to find out if sunscreen products may have any harmful effects. For example, infants have a higher risk of side effects such as a rash, therefore, sunscreens are not recommended for infants.

The FDA checks that active ingredients in sunscreens do not cause serious problems including cancer, reproductive harm, or endocrine effects. But the FDA does not test sunscreen products themselves unless the manufacturer requests a test or if a new ingredient is included that has not yet been recognized as safe.

Sunscreen is required to have an expiration date. The FDA recommends not using sunscreen past its expiration date because you cannot be sure it is still safe and effective. If you can’t find an expiration date on the product, consider the expiration date to be 3 years after you purchased it.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in sunscreen active ingredients that have been used in products marketed in European countries. In Europe, there are different requirements for regulating and marketing sunscreen products. The FDA says it is working on ways to recognize some of these other ingredients as safe and effective.

Oxybenzone

Oxybenzone is one of the common active ingredients in sunscreens that are sold in the US. The FDA says it is safe. But some environmental and health groups single out oxybenzone as potentially unsafe for some people and the environment. This is because some studies have shown oxybenzone can cause skin allergies. In addition, studies in animals and in human cells in laboratories show that oxybenzone can interfere with how some hormones work.

Other evidence suggests that oxybenzone may be hazardous to coral reefs. As a result, Hawaii is banning the sale of sunscreen products that contain oxybenzone beginning in 2021.

“The jury is still out,” says Lichtenfeld. “I’m concerned about the human impact to limiting the use of sunscreen. I personally accept the FDA’s advice that available sunscreens are safe. But I encourage people to read the reports for themselves and make an individual decision on the type of sunscreen and what ingredients they should use.”

How to protect your skin

The American Cancer Society recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. It is very important to read the label on sunscreen to know that is it both broad-spectrum and water-resistant. Reading the label will also tell you how often to re-apply the sunscreen based on how water-resistant it is. Some need to be re-applied as often as every 40 minutes, and after swimming or sweating.

In addition:

  • Cover up: When you are out in the sun, wear clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to protect as much skin as possible. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that block at least 99% of UV light.
  • Seek shade: Limit your direct exposure to the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps: Both can cause serious long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.


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