Sunscreen: Chemical Ingredients and Summertime Safety
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Baby at the beach with sunscreen

When it comes to sun protection, the science is clear. Health experts agree that using sunscreen is important during outdoor summer activities to protect the skin from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. Too much sun exposure can cause sunburns, premature skin aging and skin cancer.

Though sunscreen’s benefits to human health are well researched and studied, there is a lot of misinformation on the web about the safety of ingredients used in sunscreen products.

Here’s a quick round up of sunscreen safety facts from the experts:


What’s in my sunscreen?

Mineral sunscreens, also called sunblock, contain the active ingredients titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and protect the skin by deflecting the sun’s rays. Titanium dioxide is often a primary ingredient in sunscreen because it works well as a UV filtering ingredient.

Sunscreens also contain carbon-containing molecules that absorb light, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone.


How does sunscreen work?

Most sun protection products work by absorbing, reflecting or scattering sunlight. Sunscreens provide protection from the two types of damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVA and UVB. Both UVA and UVB rays can cause sunburns and can lead to longer-term health effects such as skin cancers, premature skin aging and eye damage.

A sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum” provides UV protection across both the UVB and UVA range. According to FDA, sunscreens with broad spectrum UV protection and SPF 15 or higher can help protect against skin aging and skin cancer.


Is sunscreen safe?

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and numerous federal agencies, health experts and organizations agree sunscreen is safe to use and can reduce a person’s risk of skin cancer.


How are sunscreen ingredients approved?

Before an ingredient can be used in sunscreen, it must be approved by the FDA. Currently, FDA has approved 17 ingredients for use in sunscreen, including oxybenzone, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and several more are under FDA consideration.


How is sunscreen regulated?

In the U.S., FDA regulates sunscreen products as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. The FDA has several safety and effectiveness regulations in place that govern the manufacture and marketing of all sunscreen products (including safety data on its ingredients).


What does SPF mean?

SPF, or Sunburn Protection Factor, is a measure of how much UV radiation is required to produce sunburn on skin protected with sunscreen, as compared to unprotected skin. As the sunscreen’s SPF level increases, sunburn protection increases. 


How do I know a sunscreen is safe for babies or children?

In general, according to AAD, when you see the term “baby” on the sunscreen label, it means the sunscreen contains only these two active ingredients: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

For children younger than 6 months of age, AAD states that parents and caregivers should avoid using sunscreen on these children, and instead protect their skin from the sun by keeping them in the shade and dressing them in long-sleeved shirts, pants and wide-brimmed hats. For children 6 months and older, AAD advises parents and caregivers use a sunscreen that contains titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which protects the sensitive skin of babies and toddlers.


How do we know zinc oxide sunscreen products are safe?

FDA has conducted extensive reviews on the safety of zinc oxide and has approved its use in over-the-counter skin protectants and sunscreen products at concentrations up to 25 percent.


How do we know titanium dioxide sunscreen products are safe?

FDA regulates the safety and effectiveness of sunscreens and their ingredients, including titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is included in FDA’s list of acceptable active ingredients in sunscreen products. According to FDA, active ingredients in sunscreen such as titanium dioxide protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays.