How to choose a safe sunscreen: Explaining new research

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A U.S. Food and Drug Administration study published last week concluded that certain sunscreen ingredients may be absorbed and detectable in the bloodstream at levels higher than originally thought – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to use sunscreen to protect our skin.

The researchers were quick to point out that, while further safety tests may be needed to assess the effects of these ingredients (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule) if absorbed into the bloodstream, the ingredients aren’t necessarily unsafe or harmful.

We should also keep in mind that the study looked at only a small number of participants, and the sunscreen was applied in much higher amounts and much more frequently than what the average consumer uses in reality.

The ingredients noted in the study have been around and in use for decades, and while additional safety tests may be warranted, we do know that exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun is a known risk factor for skin cancer. Sunscreen plays an important role in protecting us from those rays, and sunscreens on the market today meet current FDA standards.

How to choose a safe sunscreen

Look for mineral sunscreens to find one considered safe for consumers and not harmful to the environment. The FDA recognizes only two ingredients as meeting the GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective) classification – titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Both are mineral sunscreens.

Because titanium oxide and zinc oxide aren’t chemically based ingredients, they typically don’t cause skin irritation or rashes in the way some chemical sunscreens can.

As a dermatologist, I recommend looking for sunscreens with these qualities:

  • Broad spectrum ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B (UVA/UVB) protection
  • Water-resistant for 80 minutes
  • Mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide
  • SPF 50+

Note that SPF refers only to UVB protection, so broad spectrum with both UVA and UVB coverage is still important.

There are 12 other active ingredients often included in sunscreens that the FDA can’t yet give a GRASE classification because there isn’t enough safety data. Two additional ingredients, PABA and trolamine salicylate, were once included in some sunscreens, but they’ve been labeled “not GRASE,” and they aren’t included in sunscreens sold in the United States.

We should be wearing sunscreen every day

I advocate daily use of sunscreen, particularly for facial use. It’s widely available in daily moisturizers and makeup foundations. Consider applying more over any sun-exposed skin with  warmer weather and outdoor activities, especially in the summer months.

With heat and sweating, I recommend reapplying every few hours.

SPF-containing moisturizers and foundation can be enough protection

Makeup or moisturizers with SPF 25+ can provide adequate protection for everyday activities. If you know you’ll be outside for extended periods of time or in high-intensity ultraviolet exposure, it’s best to apply SPF 50+ and/or consider additional sun protection, such as sun-protective clothing, hats and sunglasses.

Can sunscreen expire?

Sunscreens should be marked with an expiration date, but it’s always a good rule of thumb to start with a new supply each season.

While expired sunscreens won’t harm you, they may not provide as much sun protection if they’re expired or have been opened for an extended period of time.

More tips for protecting your skin:


Susan Massick is a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center practicing at Stonybrook Medical Center in Gahanna, Ohio. You can find her on Twitter: @OhioSkinDoc