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JAMA Study Proves Sunscreens ARE Absorbed into Bloodstream

A second FDA-sponsored study reveals that many popular sunscreens are absorbed through the skin and get into the circulation. How worrisome is this finding?
Young woman applying sunscreen lotion on her little child sitting on sunbed at sea beach

It’s a little early to talk about sunscreens, but a new study published in JAMA (Jan. 21, 2020)  has confirmed that ingredients in sunscreens are absorbed into the body. Last May, FDA researchers reported the results from a pilot study. It demonstrated that sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone can be absorbed through the skin. You can read our in-depth analysis of the pilot study at this link

Sunscreen Gets Under Your Skin | Is It Safe?

What’s in Your Sunscreen?

The new FDA study measured concentrations of six active ingredients in four different sunscreens. The compounds included:

  • Avobenzone
  •  Oxybenzone
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate
  • Οctinoxate

Most people do not bother to read the list of ingredients in the small print on their tube or can of sunscreen. Let’s face it, these chemicals are not household words. They can be hard to pronounce.

The majority of chemical sunscreens contain one or more of these ingredients. The average consumer has no idea what they are, how they work or whether they pose any risks. The assumption is made that the FDA would never allow such chemicals on the market unless they had been well tested and proven safe. After all, we apply such creams, gels and sprays on our children. Surely the agency charged with oversight of such products would have required extensive safety testing long ago.

Then there is the belief that the skin is a very good barrier. Even if there were questions about the safety of sunscreens, surely the skin would block absorption into the blood stream, wouldn’t it?

Sunscreens ARE Absorbed into the Skin FAST!

The study published in JAMA (Jan. 2020) set out determine whether sunscreens are absorbed into the body. The researchers recruited 48 healthy volunteers:

“Study participants were randomized by a validated database system to participate in 1 of the 4 treatment groups, which included 4 sunscreen product formulations: lotion, aerosol spray, nonaerosol spray, and pump spray.”

What did the investigators discover? Here, in their own words, are their results:

“This randomized clinical trial demonstrated systemic exposure of 6 commonly used sunscreen active ingredients when participants were administered 1 application of 4 different sunscreen formulations on day 1 and 4 applications on days 2, 3, and 4. All 6 sunscreen active ingredients tested resulted in exposure above 0.5 ng/mL, and this threshold was reached after 1 application to 75%of body surface area on day 1. This reinforces the need for additional research to determine the effect of systemic exposure of sunscreen ingredients.”

In plain English, the ingredients found in many OTC sunscreens are absorbed into the body. It’s fast. Detectable amounts were measured in the bloodstream within hours. Levels were higher than expected. And they persisted for many days after the sunscreen applications were discontinued.

How Safe Are Sunscreens?

Here’s the kicker! No one knows how safe these chemical ingredients really are. That’s because the FDA never required safety studies. We suspect that the regulators just assumed that sunscreens weren’t absorbed into the bloodstream in meaningful ways. The FDA now knows that was a faulty assumption.

An editorial in JAMA (Jan. 21, 2020) that accompanied the research article noted this about the original FDA pilot investigation:

“This study also did not provide evidence of health risks associated with sunscreen absorption. However, data from animal studies and preliminary human data have previously indicated possible health risks associated with some of the sunscreen ingredients evaluated in this study, including endocrine disruption and reproductive harm.”

These authors point out that there is a paucity of data about skin irritation, allergic reactions, or carcinogenicity risks. We have very little information about the impact of long-term sunscreen exposure on children’s health.

There is growing concern about endocrine disruptors, especially in young children. Chemicals that can affect hormone activity in the body are of particular concern to pregnant women or young children.

Where is the FDA?

Dr. Janet Woodcock is the director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. She is the FDA executive we turn to when we have drug safety questions. She has stated that

“Results from our study released today show there is evidence that some sunscreen active ingredients may be absorbed. However, the fact that an ingredient is absorbed through the skin and into the body does not mean that the ingredient is unsafe, nor does the FDA seeking further information indicate such. Rather, this finding calls for further industry testing to determine the safety and effect of systemic exposure of sunscreen ingredients, especially with chronic use.”

Are you reassured? The FDA states that just because sunscreens are absorbed into the body does not mean they are unsafe. It also does not mean that they are safe. The FDA does not know. We do not know. It will likely be years before we have any inkling of whether the chemicals in sunscreens are safe for children or adults. In the meantime, we are told to slather on the sunscreen because it will protect us from skin cancer. How clear is that evidence?

Sunscreens vs. Skin Cancer:

Here are two articles we have written on this controversial topic:

How Well Do Sunscreens Work to Prevent Skin Cancer?
If you follow your dermatologist’s recommendation, you do NOT go out in the sun without sunscreen. But how good is the evidence that sunscreens prevent skin cancer?


Does Sunscreen Prevent Skin Cancer? Dermatologist Is Irate!
If you visit a dermatologist, the chances are good that you will be reminded to slather on the sunscreen. But is there a good answer to the question: Does sunscreen prevent skin cancer?

What to Make of the New Data that Sunscreens Are Absorbed:

We suspect that the FDA was somewhat surprised by the degree of sunscreen absorption revealed in the two studies it sponsored. Of course, the latest research was released in January, not exactly prime sunscreen weather. Most people will have forgotten these findings by May or June. It will be years before we know whether this discovery deserves concern. In the meantime, if you read the two articles above about sunscreens and skin cancer you will learn about other ways to protect yourself.

Please share your thoughts regarding the latest JAMA study. Does it concern you that sunscreens are absorbed into the bloodstream? Do you want to know whether there is any risk associated with that chemical absorption. The comment section below awaits your perspective.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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  • Adamson, A. S. and Shinkai, K., "Systemic Absorption of Sunscreen: Balancing Benefits With Unknown Harms," JAMA, Jan. 21, 2020, DOI: 10.1001/jama.2019.20143
  • Matta, M. K., et al, "Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial," JAMA, Jan. 21, 2020, doi: 10.1001/jama.2019.20747
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comments (15 total)
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Unfortunately we live in a *reactive* not a *proactive* country where almost EVERYTHING is unquestioned until people start showing longterm health problems. Personally, I question everything. For instance, I have been concerned about over- exposure to aluminum since the 50s; plastics being used in everything from food storage to leaching into cosmetic products which are packaged in plastics; and I’ve been boycotting ALL products from China for over 30 years due to the poisons Chinese products contain, from clothing to ceramic dishes to dog food.

Sadly, the USA has become a country saturated with contaminated consumer products. So each individual has to be vigilant about limiting our exposure to almost everything in our daily lives from the water we drink (our bodies are almost 80% water!) to the water in our showers (I use a shower filter) and swimming pools (due to chlorine that I avoid) which is absorbed thru our skin.
All this vigilance is time consuming but the alternative in not being discretionary about what we expose ourselves to is…. getting numerous illnesses later in life from years of toxic exposure.
A long life is worthless without good health.
How can we return to a time when our environment was clean & safe is the question.

Sun paranoia is getting to the ridiculous level. Children are breaking bones in record numbers because they are deficient in vitamin D. Adults are suffering from depression due to lack of vitamin D. There is absolutely no need to slather on sunscreen on a daily basis. We certainly need to protect our skin when at the beach, pool, or long exposure outdoor activities, so use zinc or titanium dioxide products. The rest is just hype.

I read recently that the safest sunscreen is mineral based. I know there are several mineral based brands out there. I have been using a tinted mineral based sunscreen for my foundation so I don’t use foundation over it. It’s just the perfect tint for my fair skin. After reading this article, now I’m skeptical about mineral based sunscreens. I’m definitely going to do research on this to see what else I can find out about mineral based.

I am very concerned about this matter. I have discovered that in the past there are some sunscreens that I can “taste” after a while. When I mentioned this to my dermatologist she was surprised. That gave me reason to wonder if I needed a new dermatologist. It seemed logical to me. I thought maybe it was thru the palms of my hands that I was absorbing the ingredients. Since that time, I now use only products labeled for babies usually with zinc oxide in them.

I use only products containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. If I apply products with other ingredients to my face, my eyes will be irritated for hours afterward.

I have long noted that soon after applying sunscreen to my face, no matter how much space I put between the sunscreen and my eyes, my eyes get irritated within 30-40 minutes, whether I sweat or not. This is a particular concern for me now because I’m 71 and entering cataract territory. If the sunscreen is getting into my eyes, and I am convinced it is, how wonderful can that be for the future health of my vision?

But over the past two years I’ve had four surgeries and one cauterization for basal and squamous cells. Over the past ten years I’ve had more actinic keratoses frozen than I can count. But I can’t manage without some sun. Granted, I’ve had my three score and ten, and I’m grateful, but still, I’d like to avoid too much distress down the homestretch. Suggestions?

FDA is calling for “industry testing,” and we all know what they will find. Certainly nothing that will curtail sales of sunscreens! I’ve never used them, live in a very sunny place, and have no problems. Cover up, avoid outdoors at noon, common sense stuff.

This statement from the head of the FDA says suggests “further industry testing” is needed. Excuse me? I know that many current political appointees are anti-government regulation, but this is absurd. Just as the latest Ag news that meat packers are going to be allowed to self-inspect. The public can’t make determinations as to what products are safe, and most of us realize you can’t trust industries to self-inspect and regulate. It’s not in their economic interests to be ultra careful. Besides, many companies do not have their own rigorous testing labs. They’ve long relied on the FDA.

I’m a Floridian and am out in the sun daily. This is a year-round situation for all of us who live in the sunbelt. And let’s not pretend there’s no sun reflection off snow and ice for those who live in the north. Faces at least, need protection, and a ski cap doesn’t do it.

So far, we’re being told that barrier sun screens are safest, but are they? How well has zinc or titanium oxide been tested? Many of the newer invisible types may be absorbed. Some use nano particles. We just don’t know at this point.

We need good information as soon as possible. This is should be a public health priority. What does the scientific literature in Europe say about this topic? I have heard EU bans many chemicals that our country uses for various products?

This is scary! I have two grandsons, now teenagers. One who has very delicate skin has had sunscreen slathered on for most of his life. We won’t know how this story turns out for a few years.

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