A report released on Wednesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine highlights the insufficient data surrounding the potentially adverse effects of commonly used ultraviolet, or UV, filters in sunscreens on both human health and marine wildlife.
Among the key concerns in the report is that the majority of UV testing to date has been conducted on people who have fair skin, resulting in significant data gaps regarding how certain sunscreen ingredients impact those with higher melanin levels.
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The report also notes that certain ingredients in sunscreens can be harmful to aquatic wildlife — which is already under threat due to pollution and global warming — when carried into the water on human skin, citing a recent study that found that organic compound oxybenzone, an active ingredient in some sunscreens, can worsen coral bleaching.
A concerted effort by the National Academies in conjunction with experts in dermatology, cancer prevention, behavioral science and human epidemiology, the study calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct Environmental Risk Assessments to increase understanding of the ecological and human health impacts of UV filters.
The National Academies’ report acknowledges that there are different “tiers” of ERAs, and that while they can be conducted with limited information, additional data and information lead to more thorough evaluations, with fewer degrees of uncertainty.
Through its proposed ERAs, the National Academies seeks to determine “under what conditions individual or mixtures of UV filters are a risk to organisms and ecosystems — either alone or in combination with other environmental stressors — and where these conditions might occur,” reads the report.
The scope of the study focuses on the 16 UV filters allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as an additional proprietary UV filter patented by L’Oréal in 1982 called ecamsule, otherwise known as Mexoryl SX.
“Sunscreen companies have moved at a glacial pace in providing the FDA with missing data for these UV filters,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at The Environmental Working Group, in a statement in support of the report. “The sunscreen industry will need to be cajoled into playing a role in any new assessment of the environmental risks for these chemicals.”
The report calls on the EPA to explore the potential toxicity of 17 UV filters: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, trolamine salicylate, sulisobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, octisalate, octinoxate, meradimate, padimate O, homosalate, ensulizole, ecamsule, dioxybenzone, cinoxate, avobenzone and aminobenzoic acid.
“In addition to working with other federal agencies, the EPA will need to partner with sunscreen formulators and UV filter manufacturers to access toxicity testing and bioaccumulation studies,” Benesh said in a statement.
The Personal Care Products Council released a statement in response to the National Academies’ report, stating that its findings “support the PCPC’s long-held position that there is currently insufficient relevant and reliable scientific data to conduct realistic ERAs, and there is not enough scientific data to support sunscreen ingredient bans.”
The statement continues, “Policymakers, regulators and legislators should not make any decisions that impact consumers’ access to FDA-approved sunscreen UV filters until the scientific community reaches an informed consensus.”
Said BeautyStat founder and cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson in an interview with WWD: “There’s no doubt that more research is needed in this area — I think we can all agree on that.”
The founder, who was previously a cosmetic chemist at Clinique, noted the responsibility of companies to ensure their products and practices meet Quality Assurance requirements, echoing the notion that until more data is collected, it is premature to ban sunscreen actives that are currently FDA approved.
Robinson agreed with the report’s point that ingredient testing needs to be conducted on a more diverse range of skin tones, saying “I think the assumption is that people who have darker skin tones are protected because they have more melanin, but we do see occurrences of skin cancer in those populations as well, so we need more data all around.”
EWG, which specializes in research and advocacy in environmental health, among other causes, suggests avoiding sunscreens that contain oxybenzone because of concerns that it may impact hormone levels when absorbed through the skin in large amounts, refraining from purchasing spray sunscreens to reduce inhalation risk, as well as sunscreens with SPF values above 50+, which may not actually provide increased UVA protection.
The organization also suggested avoiding vitamin A in sunscreens, noting that government studies have linked the use of retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, to the formation of skin tumors and lesions when applied to sun-exposed skin.