Why the FDA Is Looking at the Chemicals in Sunscreens
(Bloomberg) -- Recent research has reported finding cancer-linked chemicals in sunscreen sprays and lotions, causing a lot of worry among beach lovers and parents who cover their kids in the stuff daily. Scientists who have done testing on sun-protection products have been concerned enough to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to pull some products from the market or recall certain brands. While the FDA sorts through this data, the question remains: What do we know about the ingredients in sunscreen bottles?
1. What do the researchers say?
Researchers have filed two separate petitions with the FDA to recall certain sunscreens or remove them from the market. The first was filed in May after the independent testing lab Valisure found elevated levels of benzene, a likely carcinogen, in some sunscreens. Johnson & Johnson recalled all lots of five kinds of Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreen sprays in response. Valisure, an independent lab that tests consumer products, also detected benzene in some after-sun merchandise, prompting CVS Health Corp. to halt sales of some of its aloe products. Then in August, researchers asked the FDA to pull from the market widely used sunscreens that contain the ingredient octocrylene.
2. What other concerns have been raised?
The latest petition was filed by Craig Downs, executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, and Joe DiNardo, a toxicologist who previously worked for the cosmetics industry. Their petition was based on research they did with scientists at the Paris-based Sorbonne University that found the chemical benzophenone in sunscreens made with octocrylene, suggesting that octocrylene degrades into benzophenone, a possible carcinogen that can also interfere with hormones like estrogen. Downs and DiNardo’s findings were published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology in March. Later, Belgian researchers published similar results after testing products containing octocrylene.
3. What sunscreens are under scrutiny?
Valisure included a list of sunscreens it found contained benzene in its petition. The lab also published an attachment to the petition that listed the benzene-free sunscreens in its study. It said that the issue may be a manufacturing issue, rather than an ingredient one, since the benzene wasn’t in all sunscreens it tested. Benzophenone, which is the subject of Downs and DiNardo’s petition, was found in popular brands such as Beiersdorf AG’s Coppertone Water Babies spray, Edgewell Personal Care Co.’s Banana Boat SPF 50 lotion and a Neutrogena Beach Defense spray and lotion from J&J. The researchers concluded that any sunscreen containing octocrylene had the potential to contain benzophenone.
4. How did the industry react?
Only J&J and CVS recalled or halted sales of their products that contained benzene. Others Valisure detected the chemical in remain on the market. The Personal Care Products Council, a Washington lobby group, said the research Downs and DiNardo did “perpetuates misinformation and needlessly misleads and scares consumers about the safety of sunscreen products.” The European Union has approved octocrylene for use in sunscreens, the group said. Beiersdorf ensures all of its “products, including our sunscreens, are rigorously evaluated for safety and efficacy,” Robert Nishiyama, a spokesman, said in an email. J&J and Edgewell didn’t respond to requests for comment.
5. What does the FDA say?
It determined in 2019 that it needed more data on chemicals used as active ingredients in sunscreen, though the ingredients can still be used currently, including octocrylene and oxybenzone. The advocacy organization Environmental Working Group asked the FDA as far back as 2008 to investigate the safety of oxybenzone “because of mounting evidence that the chemical readily penetrates the skin and could potentially disrupt the hormone system.” Yet there’s no indication companies have provided the safety data the FDA requested two years ago, said David Andrews, a senior scientist with the group. Earlier research by Downs had led Hawaii to ban the sale of oxybenzone-containing sunscreen because it was linked to coral-reef damage.
6. How can consumers stay safe?
Without additional data, the FDA has only determined the mineral ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are safe in sunscreen. Consumers can check the labels to see if the minerals are listed as the only active ingredients. The FDA also suggests limiting sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and wearing long sleeves, pants and broad-brimmed hats.
7. What’s next?
The FDA will look into the requests made in the petitions. The agency has been conducting its own sunscreen research while it awaits data from the industry and found that all the chemical ingredients absorb into the skin at high enough levels to warrant the call for more information. The Maui City Council in Hawaii is considering expanding the state’s ban on the sale of oxybenzone products to potentially limit sunscreen use on the island to only the minerals the FDA found to be safe. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is expected to release a report next year on the environmental and public health impacts of sunscreen.
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