Of course, you’re using safety precautions to protect yourself from the virus — walking 6 feet or more from others, wearing a mask, avoiding touching your face, washing your hands — but have you thought of the necessity of protecting your skin?
The danger of skin cancer certainly hasn’t disappeared during the age of coronavirus, and using sunscreen is more important than ever, experts say.
“This year, 75% of the SPF [sun protection factor] products EWG assessed still contained worrisome ingredients and/or do not provide adequate sun protection,” said Nneka Leiba, vice president of healthy living science at EWG.
That’s because choosing a safe sunscreen isn’t as simple as popping into a store (mask on, of course) and grabbing the nearest option off the shelf.
Hidden dangers of sunscreens
Last year the US Food and Drug Administration called for additional testing of a dozen common sunscreen ingredients after finding that alarming levels of six of them can enter a person’s bloodstream after just one day of use — and then last in the bloodstream for seven to 21 days.
At the time, the Personal Care Products Council and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association countered: “The presence of these ingredients in plasma does not suggest a safety issue, and there were no serious drug-related adverse events reported in the trial.”
One popular ingredient used in US chemical sunscreens, oxybenzone, was absorbed into the body at about “50 to 100 times higher concentration” than the others tested in the 2019 study, Andrews said.
FDA’s new guidelines blocked
The FDA has been working on more stringent guidelines on sunscreen testing and safety for decades. In 2019 the agency proposed what was to be a set of final rules that placed safety testing requirements on manufacturers, a stipulation that had not been in place before.
“These changing conditions of use and differences in sunscreen formulation may also lead to greater absorption and possibly additional risks,” the FDA added.
“Most people are not aware, these chemicals are in fact considered drugs,” Lichtenfeld told CNN when the FDA proposed the regulations last year.
“The FDA is now saying we need to treat them like drugs. We need to understand much more about how they work, and we really need to know about their safety as well,” Lichtenfeld said.
As 2020 began, the proposed rules were in a public comment phase, but now all that has come to a halt, EWG’s Andrews told CNN Wednesday.
In addition, the act requires the FDA to propose new sunscreen regulations within 18 months.
“It is my understanding that the FDA is likely to re-propose the draft rule from last year and require the same studies it asked for before,” Andrews said. “That said, it has not yet happened and sunscreen regulations remain where they were previously.
“For consumers, this currently means that products on the shelves remain the same. Stronger UVA protection standards have been delayed,” he added.
How to protect from the sun
All of this uncertainty may leave consumers unsure of what to do, and experts worry some may forgo the use of sunscreen altogether. But, experts warned, that’s an even worse idea than exposing you or your family to chemicals that have not yet been proven to be harmful.
To provide consumers with vetted choices, the EWG puts out a yearly sunscreen guide. For its 14th Annual Sunscreen Guide, the group said it analyzed the ingredients and performance of more than 1,300 products with sun protection factors, 700 of which are marketed as beach and sport sunscreens.
The safest choices are always the two types of mineral (not chemical) ingredients that are considered safe and effective by the FDA: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
Sunscreens made with minerals physically deflect and block the sun’s rays, as opposed to sunscreens with chemical filters that absorb the UVB rays and release heat as they break down.
In fact the SPF (sun protection factor) of sunscreens applies only to the UVB rays that cause sunburn and not the UVA rays that also damage and age the skin.
Experts say UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and into the tissue and can cause long-lasting damage. That’s why dermatologists recommend always using a sunscreen labeled “broad-spectrum,” which protects against both.
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide protect from both UVA and UVB rays. Another plus — the ingredients don’t appear to harm the environment.