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Here's What You Should Know About the Ingredients in Your Sunscreen

The FDA is revisiting its regulations, but you should still be using sunscreen.

Man Applying Sunscreen
Chris Ryan / Getty

Whether you’re hitting the beach, going for a run, or just spending time outside, sunscreen is a must to protect your skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays—a main risk factor for skin cancer, which happens to be the most common cancer in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Considering it’s been estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the time they’re 70, it’s a good idea to apply (and reapply) sunscreen whenever you’ll be catching some rays, regardless of your complexion.

It’s been a while since the active ingredients in sunscreens, most of which are considered over-the-counter drugs, have been examined by scientists, so the FDA in February proposed updated regulations on sunscreen products. Two of its main reasons for the proposed updates are that people use sunscreen more than ever these days, and that sunscreens contain more active ingredients in higher concentrations than ever before. 

“Broad spectrum sunscreens with SPF values of at least 15 are critical to the arsenal of tools for preventing skin cancer and protecting the skin from damage caused by the sun’s rays,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., said in a press release at the time. “Yet some of the essential requirements for these preventive tools haven’t been updated in decades.” He called the proposal “an important step in the FDA’s ongoing efforts to take into account modern science to ensure the safety and effectiveness of sunscreens.”

As of now, there are 16 active ingredients marketed in sunscreens, but only two of them—zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—are generally recognized as safe and effective by the FDA. Another two—PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) and trolamine dioxide—aren’t. That leaves 12 ingredients that the FDA isn’t keen on categorizing just yet.

To change that, it’s asking for more data from both the industry and any interested parties to gather the evidence needed to make those calls. Once the FDA has enough information on those ingredients, it can create a new monograph, which is a standard for over-the-counter drug ingredients to determine their safety and effectiveness.     

In May, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association added fuel to the fire, revealing that we absorb more of the ingredients in sunscreen products than previously thought. It was a small study, involving just 24 participants and four commercially available sunscreens, but it got people's attention, regardless.  Researchers looked at the results of what’s called a maximal usage trial, which is when a topical drug is used according to the maximum suggested limits in its directions, to see how much of the ingredients were absorbed into the body through the skin. 

In this case, it took just one day—and a total of four sunscreen applications—for more than .5 nanograms per milliliter of the active ingredients to end up in participants’ bloodstreams. That amount may mean nothing to an average person, but to the FDA, it means these ingredients warrant more testing to make sure they don’t increase the risk of cancer, birth defects, or any other health issues. It’s important to note that the JAMA study didn’t find any of these ingredients to be harmful, just that more of them end up in our bloodstreams than we thought.

The FDA maintains the stance that everyone should keep using sunscreen. Specifically, you should look for a bread-spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen that's SPF 15 or higher, and reapply every two hours while you're in the sun—even on cloudy days. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen on any exposed skin if you’ll be spending time outside. 

The AAD's guidelines also point out that higher SPF sunscreens don't last longer than lower SPFs, so you'll still need to reapply every two hours. Both groups also suggest taking more preventative measures, like wearing protective clothing or hanging out in the shade instead of the sunlight. 

If we had to guess, we'd say that no M&F reader would be thrilled to wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and a wide-brimmed sun hat to protect themselves. After all, they’re called “beach muscles” for a reason. 

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