A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that chemicals in some sunscreens are absorbed into the bloodstream in levels high enough to warrant additional research.

So, are the chemicals in sunscreen harmful? Should parents be concerned? We asked Patrick McMahon, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), to explain the study’s findings and offer guidance on how parents should respond.

Girl smiling getting sunscreen put on her nose. “The important thing to remember,” says Dr. McMahon, “is that while this new data highlights a need for further investigation of sunscreens, there are already very real proven health risks if someone is over-exposed to sunlight, including sunburns, skin damage and skin cancers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which conducted the study, specifically advises people to continue to use sunscreen while additional research is done.”

Dr. McMahon explains this was a preliminary study, with just 24 test subjects, all of them adults, and that it only looked at whether the chemicals in sunscreen were absorbed through the skin, not whether the chemicals caused harm. While it’s good to be aware of this kind of research, it’s important not to overreact.

Sunscreen types

There are two main types of sunscreen, and each protects the skin in different ways.

  • Chemical sunscreens, the subject of the FDA study, absorb the sun’s harmful rays, acting like a sponge. On the labels of these sunscreens you’ll see such active ingredients as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate.
  • Physical (or mineral) sunscreens block and reflect the sun’s harmful rays, acting like a shield. On the labels of these sunscreens, you’ll find titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, or both, listed as the active ingredients. These sunscreens may leave a visible white coating when applied to the skin.

What sunscreens are safe for kids?

Pediatricians and dermatologists recommend using physical or mineral sunscreens (those with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) with young children and anyone with dry skin or eczema. They also caution against using spray-application sunscreen, which might be inhaled.

Chemical sunscreens are still considered safe for older children and people with healthy skin. The use of any sunscreen is safer than unprotected exposure to the sun.

Future research may show that some of the ingredients in chemical sunscreens are safer than others. For example, oxybenzone has been found in other studies to be associated with (but not necessarily to cause) lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys. It has also been found in breast milk. Sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinozate are already banned in Hawaii and Key West because of their harmful effects on coral reefs.

Ways to limit sun exposure

“The other thing to remember,” says Dr. McMahon, “is that sunscreen is just one of the ways to protect against sun exposure.”

He offers these suggestions for parents:

  • Plan your child’s time outdoors to avoid direct sunlight in the middle of the day, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Stay in the shade or go indoors during these hours.
  • Keep babies out of direct sunlight at all times, even early and late in the day.
  • Dress your child in sun-protective clothing, made of light but tightly woven fabrics that block UV rays.
  • Have your child wear a hat with a wide brim that shades the face and neck.
  • Have your child wear sunglasses to protect the eyes.

More information on sunscreen safety

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