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Are Chemical Sunscreens Actually Bad For You?

Earlier this week, a study came out that found chemicals in common sunscreens enter the human bloodstream at much higher levels than U.S. guidelines from health regulators recommend. Rightfully so, many people freaked out! Does this mean we shouldn’t use sunscreen? Or only wear natural sunscreen? What damage have we already done? decided to dig a little deeper. We spoke with Steven Q. Wang, MD, chair of The Skin Cancer Foundation Photobiology Committee, who said, most importantly, do not stop wearing sunscreen — and chemical and mineral (often marketed as “natural”) are both still viable options. If you’re wondering which is “best,” Wang says that it’s simply whichever you will actually use. “Both mineral and chemical sunscreens have been proven effective in protecting the skin from the sun,” he says.

At first glance, the word “chemical” might make a lot of people nervous, (especially if you hear they are going into your bloodstream), but it’s worth keeping in mind that not all chemicals are necessarily going to harm your health. In fact, some may offer a helping hand. “Chemical ingredients, like oxybenzone, are common UV filters that help provide sun protection,” says Wang. “We’ve known for years they absorb into the body to some degree and are excreted in urine and breast milk, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for you.” Furthermore, sunscreens have been proven to be effective agents in preventing skin cancer — perhaps the most important reason to lather up.

Dr. Wang explains that older research suggested oxybenzone may cause allergic reactions and hormone disruption. But that research was done on rodents, not humans. Plus, the oxybenzone was force-fed to the rodents, not applied topically, and the amount of sunscreen we put on our skin is not equal to the amount that the rodents consumed. More recent studies done on humans have shown no change in hormonal levels in those who use sunscreen with oxybenzone. 

Even the authors of the most recent study said their findings do not indicate that people should stop wearing sunscreen. Instead, they are simply calling for further studies to determine the significance of their findings. If you’re truly concerned about any potential effects from chemical sunscreens, Wang says mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are a great alternative.

While chemical sunscreens tend to be easier to apply and rub in, they are also more likely to cause a bad skin reaction. If you have super-sensitive skin, you may want to opt for a mineral SPF instead. “Out of an abundance of caution, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may want to use a mineral option,” he adds. The downside of mineral sunscreen, is they might be thicker and can leave a white film on the skin. However, as natural sunscreens gain in popularity, the formulas are becoming more tactilely and aesthetic pleasing. We love Alba Botanica ($11.86, Amazon) and La Roche-Posay Anthelios ($35.99, Amazon).

“What is most important to make sure the sunscreen offers broad-spectrum protection and has an SPF of at least 15,” says Wang. “Mineral or chemical won’t matter as much if the SPF is low, so this should be a rule of thumb when searching for a sunscreen.”

Of course, it’s worth remembering that sunscreen application is not a one-and-done deal. You need to apply it 30 minutes before you go outside and then reapply every two hours — or even more frequently if you’re sweating or swimming outdoors. You also have to make sure that you apply it to all exposed areas of your body not covered by clothing, including the back of your hands, ears, and neck. Above all, be sure that you’re applying the sunscreen correctly and that you don’t spread it too thin. 

Being generous is good — especially when it comes to sun protection!

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