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How Safe Is Sunscreen And How Much Should We Wear?


We're well into June, and summer is just around the corner. For some, that means lawn mowing, beaches, pools and sunscreen. A study published recently in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, found active ingredients in sunscreen were absorbed into the bloodstream. The significance of that is still unclear. So to offer some guidance, we're joined by Trisha Calvo of Consumer Reports.

Welcome to the program.

TRISHA CALVO: Thank you.

CORNISH: This study was conducted by some FDA researchers. Can you tell us more about what they found?

CALVO: They found that some of the chemical active ingredients in sunscreen - oxybenzone, avobenzone - was absorbed through the skin. But they did not make a determination about whether or not that meant health effects - health side effects from that absorption.

CORNISH: You were behind Consumer Reports' extensive ranking of sunscreens. So in light of this news, how should we think about our choice of sunscreen? What should we look for?

CALVO: Well, the first thing to remember is that you need to use sunscreen. The risks of sun exposure to your skin - skin cancer, sunburn - are very well-established, so you still need to use sunscreen when you're going to be outside and on exposed skin. The FDA has said that they consider that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as active ingredients are safe and aren't absorbed through the skin.

However, in Consumer Reports' tests of sunscreens, we found that they don't perform as well. So one thing that you might want to consider is using a sunscreen that does not have oxybenzone. Of all the chemical active ingredients, that's the one that seems to be most worrisome, although it's far from determined whether or not it is actually a problem. It's also the ingredient that can possibly harm the coral reefs.

CORNISH: That was my next question. We've been hearing about this idea that sunscreen can be damaging to the environment. And it feels a little bit like we can't win...

CALVO: Right.

CORNISH: ...In terms of choices. I mean, am I wrong about that?

CALVO: You know, that research is still in the early stages as well. And I don't want to undermine it or underplay it, but you have to think about things sort of globally. And one thing that you can do is - if you're concerned about sunscreen use is you can just be extra careful about covering up.

CORNISH: So I know for my own kid, the swimsuit I got for him has long sleeves. And I'm always putting, like, a big hat on him. So you're telling me that's not overkill.

CALVO: That is not overkill. That's actually a great idea. You know, there are a lot of sun-protective clothing on the market now, so that will help protect the environment 'cause you're using less sunscreen. And it will also help protect you against any potential problems with sunscreen ingredients.

CORNISH: In the end, how big a deal is this study published by JAMA?

CALVO: I think it's great that the FDA has called for more information, but I am concerned that people will take that information and not really understand what's behind it and then stop using sunscreen or think that sunscreen is definitely harmful. It's important to remember that none of that has been established yet. And even the FDA has said you shouldn't stop using sunscreen with these active ingredients.

CORNISH: In the meantime, when you're going to the beach, what are you going to be using?

CALVO: I use sunscreen all the time, but I'm also really careful to cover up. So if you came across me on the beach, you would see me in a long-sleeved shirt under an umbrella with a towel over my feet so I didn't get sunburn. But I use sunscreen regularly.

CORNISH: So I don't have to bring back the parasol just yet. That's what I was thinking of (laughter).

CALVO: No, but you know what? That's not a bad idea.

CORNISH: Trisha Calvo, deputy health and food editor at Consumer Reports.

Thanks for hashing it out with us.

CALVO: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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