It took just one day of use for several common sunscreen ingredients to enter the bloodstream at levels high enough to trigger a government safety investigation, according to a pilot study conducted by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, an arm of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The study, published May 6, 2019 in the medical journal JAMA, also found that the blood concentration of three of the ingredients continued to rise as daily use continued, and then remained in the body for at least 24 hours after sunscreen use ended.
The four chemicals studied - avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule and octocrylene are part of a dozen that the FDA recently said needed to be researched by manufacturers before they could be considered GRASE or "generally regarded as safe and effective."
This study is the FDA's way of showing sunscreen manufacturers they need to do the studies to see if chemical absorption poses health risks.
The new FDA study enrolled 24 healthy volunteers who were randomly assigned to a spray or lotion sunscreen that contained avobenzone, oxybenzone, or octocrylene as ingredients or a creme sunscreen that contained the chemical ecamsule.
The volunteers were asked to put their assigned sunscreen on 75% of their body four times each day for four days. Thirty blood samples were taken from each volunteer over seven days.
Of the six people using the ecamsule cream, five had levels of the chemical in their blood considered statistically significant by the end of day one. For the other three chemicals, especially oxybenzone, all of the volunteers showed significant levels after the first day.
Oxybenzone was absorbed into the body at about 50 to 100 times higher concentration than any of these other three chemicals they tested.
In 2008 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed urine samples collected by a government study and found oxybenzone in 97% of the samples. Since then, studies have shown a potential link between oxybenzone and lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys, hormone changes in men, and shorter pregnancies and disrupted birth weights in babies, but researchers caution about assuming association.
Of all of the sunscreen ingredients, oxybenzone is known to be the most common cause of contact allergies; a 10-year study found 70% of people had a positive patch test when exposed. A Swiss study found oxybenzone or one of four other sunscreen chemicals in 85% of breast milk samples, sparking concern that newborns could potentially be exposed.
And Hawaii, the Pacific nation of Palau and Key West recently banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate because they cause coral bleaching and are dangerous to marine ecosystems.
The European Union has mostly replaced oxybenzone. Oxybenzone remains in use in the US; in fact, a 2018 report by EWG estimated that it was in two-thirds of all chemically based sunscreens sold in the United States.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. Around the world, melanoma ranks as the 19th most common cancer in both men and women, the World Cancer Research Fund says.
In the United States, sunscreens were originally approved as an over-the-counter solution to sunburn. They came in two types: one using chemical combos to filter the sun, the other using minerals to block the sun such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing the two mineral sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide when possible as first choice.
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