Questions about sunscreen safety remain unanswered as FL summer traditions resume

Oxybenzone is absorbed into the bloodstream in concentrations too high to be presumed safe, according to the FDA, but popular sunscreens that contain the chemical remain on store shelves. Credit: Environmental Working Group

Questions raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about the safety of certain popular sunscreens remain unanswered as Florida reopens its beaches, amusement parks, and other destinations for fun in the sun.

Safety studies of oxybenzone and certain other chemicals commonly found in sunscreens have not been completed by the FDA, which in January struck those chemicals from its list of ingredients “generally regarded as safe and effective.” Those sunscreen chemicals had long been “regarded” as safe – and deemed desirable for reducing skin cancer – but were not proved so by toxicology studies, according to the FDA.

The FDA retained mineral-based sunscreens on its list of “safe and effective” ingredients.

Sunscreens resist skin cancer but ones with certain chemical ingredients are believed to harm Florida corals and may not be safe for human health. Photo: Catherine Ledner/Getty

The non-profit research organization Environmental Working Group in its 2020 “Guide to Sunscreens” rates chemical sunscreens as potentially hazardous, citing reports echoed by the FDA that oxybenzone – the most commonly found ingredient – and several other chemical ingredients are known to enter the blood stream in concentrations that cannot be presumed safe.

“The FDA published proposed sunscreen rules which indicated that most ingredients were inadequately tested for safety and implied that these ingredients would be removed from the market unless appropriate safety testing was conducted,” the authors write in their Guide to Sunscreens.

Proposed rules were to be finalized by the end of 2019 but must now be re-proposed by the FDA, in part because the industry wanted more time.

“The agency published two scientific studies last year showing that, with just a single application, all non-mineral sunscreen ingredients are readily absorbed through the skin and could be detected in our bodies at levels that could cause harm,” the authors continued. “Given the delay, it remains unclear when consumers will see better sun protection products.”

The chemical ingredients in question, according to the FDA, are: oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, meradimate, padimate O, and sulisobenzone.

The Environmental Working Group advises the public to rely chiefly on protections such as sun-resistant skin coverings, hats, sunglasses and shade. When using sunscreens too, the group advises choosing mineral-based ones that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are FDA-approved as safe for human health and effective against sun damage. The guide also recommends products in cream and lotion form, and none in spray form.

Its guide lists sunscreens that its researchers rate as the most safe for children and safe for all ages.

This coral is dying of stony coral tissue loss, caused in part by water pollution. Credit: Coral Restoration Foundation

Meanwhile, scientific organizations including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service assert that oxybenzone and the other chemical ingredients in sunscreens damage and kill corals and other marine life.

The City of Key West voted to ban the use of chemical sunscreens on local beaches, in order to protect coral reefs off its shores, but a 2020 law sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican from an inland north Florida district, now prohibits Key West and all Florida cities from implementing any such ban. Mineral-based sunscreens approved by the FDA are considered “reef safe.”