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June 7, 2019Sunscreen and Sun Protection

Is Sunscreen Really Bad for Your Health?

Dr. Whitney Bowe Weighs in On Sunscreen Ingredients and Safety

Many of you have requested the full transcript of my videos, so here is the full transcript for this video!


I’m Dr. Whitney Bowe. I’m a board certified dermatologist here in New York and if you guys have been with me for a while on my website and social media, you know that I love summer and all things beach related. You also know that sun protection is incredibly important to me as a dermatologist and as a mom. For those of you just joining me, I am often asked by the press to share my insight on breaking news in my field so I wanted to share some videos with you guys about the recent FDA proposal on sunscreen safety.

The FDA recently came out with a very controversial proposal, and it’s creating a lot of hot debate among dermatologists, sunscreen manufacturers and the government. I wanted to weigh in on what’s going on, and what this means for you and your family.

Overall, the FDA is still saying that the benefits of sunscreen still outweigh the risks. BUT the FDA is recommending that we need to conduct additional studies to ensure all sunscreen ingredients on the market are safe. Their main area of concern has to do with the dermal absorption of chemical sunscreen ingredients.

There’s been a long-term debate about the extent to which sunscreen ingredients are absorbed through the skin and make their way into the blood. According to the FDA, the questions surrounding long term safety of this absorption have not been answered. Physical blockers, like zinc and titanium, both have minimal skin absorption, but many chemical sunscreen ingredients have been found in systemic circulation and tissues in humans. The problem is, the studies done thus far have not been standardized, meaning the products weren’t applied the way they would or should be in real life.

So scientists aren’t really sure what to make of this data. For example, let’s look at oxybenzone.  Oxybenzone is a chemical sunscreen ingredient found not only in sunscreens but also in personal care products including cosmetics and fragrances.  And it’s not easily removed by waste water treatment plants. The CDC has estimated that 96.8% of the US population has been exposed to oxybenzone.  Now 96.8% of the population is NOT using sunscreen on a regular basis, so exposure to this chemical is NOT just from sunscreen, and that’s important to keep in mind.

In rat models, oxybenzone appears to have an endocrinologic effect.  What does that mean?  Rats FED oral oxybenzone were studied, and in that study, after literally EATING this ingredient, it appears as though that ingredient had an effect on their uterine weight—what we call an estrogenic effect. It was a very mild effect, but that’s why some people say oxybenzone can be considered an endocrine disruptor. Many dermatologists are up in arms about blogs and websites citing that study as proof that oxybenzone is dangerous to humans. They argue that no known safety issues have been reported in HUMANS.  In fact, some of my colleagues looked at how we can translate that rat data into humans to prove their point that the rat data is not strong enough to warrant any concern.

Here’s what they found after doing a number of calculations: it would take 35 years of daily application of oxybenzone, meaning every day of the year- rain or shine, sun, or clouds, to 100% of your body surface area for humans to achieve the same blood level as those rats achieved in the laboratory setting. Nobody I know, even my most diligent patient, is applying oxybenzone from head to toe every single day of every single season. So I get where my colleagues are coming from. That being said, I agree with the FDA that we need more data. We need to see studies that mimic real life application of these sunscreen ingredients, in humans, and we need to see what impact that actually has… again, ON US.

The FDA is not concerned about what we call physical, or mineral blockers. Those go by the names Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide.  Now the catch is that these mineral blockers, when studied by third party testers like consumer reports, tend not to perform as well as sunscreens that contain chemical blockers- meaning people are more likely to burn through them.  Also, when you try to formulate sunscreens with high enough doses of these mineral blockers to really protect the skin, they oftentimes leave people looking white and chalky- especially people with darker skin tones.

The FDA is planning on doing a deep dive into the data and they are promising to give us a final decision by November of this year. Until then, I’ll keep updating you on the evidence we have to date so you can make your own decisions for yourself and your family!  If you found this video useful, please share it with a friend and feel free to request topics for me to cover in future videos in the comments below or on my social media channels.  Thanks for joining me today and see you soon!

Dr. Whitney