Dermatologists in a recent Bloomberg article have recently claimed that Americans are using inferior sunscreens compared to the ones available in Europe, Japan, Australia, and Canada. However, that is a gross misrepresentation of the true situation.
While it is true that new and innovative sunscreen ingredients are available for consumer use in these countries; and while it is also true that the U.S. has been slow to adopt these sunscreen ingredients; it is objectively false to claim that U.S. sunscreens are outdated and needlessly expose you to cancer risk.
The Current Standard
As a dermatologist focusing on skin cancer detection and removal, I am intimately aware that the rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have been rising year over year. As a frequent media contributor, I am constantly encouraging people to avoid the sun and wear sunscreen and SPF clothing when outside for extended periods of time.
It has been my longstanding position that physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which protect against UVA and UVB radiation, are the safest and most efficient sunscreen ingredients. Both ingredients are widely used and available to Americans who wish to protect themselves against skin cancer and photoaging.
On the Surface
I will concede that physical blockers are not the most attractive or appealing sunscreens for the cosmetically conscious consumer. These sunscreens tend to look pasty and will often leave a white film, if properly applied.
Since any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen, I often recommend chemical sunscreens as an alternative to those who wish to balance their safety and short-term appearance. For these individuals, it would be beneficial to have a wider selection of chemical sunscreen ingredients available.
The Deeper Truth
Unfortunately, little is known about the long-term effects of chemical sunscreens in our bodies and overall health. Unlike physical blockers, which sit on top of our skin and form a protective layer that blocks UV ray absorption, chemical filters are absorbed by our skin and protect from within.
Dr. Theresa Michele of the FDA says, “some sunscreen active ingredients may be absorbed through the skin into the body, making it important to complete studies in humans to determine whether, and to what extent, consumers’ use of sunscreen products as directed may result in unintended, chronic, systemic exposure to these ingredients.”
Chemical filters are known to absorb through our skin and into our bloodstream, and with enough exposure, these chemicals may have detrimental effects.
Even oxybenzone, a chemical filter with U.S. approval, has been shown to have disruptive estrogen effects in an animal laboratory study. Granted, these effects were present after exposure to an amount of oxybenzone well above normal use.
Oxybenzone also has negative effects on our environment, contributing towards the bleaching and death of coral reefs. It easily washes off when swimming and bathing and can even be detected in drinking water as it is not effectively removed from wastewater in treatment plants.
For people who are conscious about their appearance and want to protect themselves from skin cancer, there are plenty of other chemical filters available with a proven track record. Still, I prefer my patients use physical blockers instead.
The slow adoption of new sunscreen ingredients by the FDA is not an antiquated system. It is designed to protect Americans from unknown risks. There is no present need for the FDA to fast track the adoption of new ingredients because currently available ingredients are sufficient.
If you are passionate about skin cancer prevention, then most of the fight lies elsewhere. I implore congress to increase funding of programs recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology and The Skin Cancer Foundation. These organizations spread awareness of proper skin protection and sunscreen use.
From a public health standpoint, furthering public education is more effective than advocating for the adoption of new sunscreen ingredients. Effective ingredients are already available for public use in the U.S. and it is unclear what the long-term health and environmental ramifications will be for the newly proposed chemical ingredients.
Dr. Janet Hill Prystowsky is a board-certified dermatologist with over 30 years of experience in dermatology and dermatologic surgery.