National Academies urge EPA to study sunscreen risks

By E.A. Crunden | 08/09/2022 01:29 PM EDT

A woman applies sunscreen to a child in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

A woman applies sunscreen to a child in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A new study puts pressure on regulators to address the ecological risks of sunscreen use. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. EDT.

Some of the country’s most powerful scientific advisers want regulators to take a closer look at the risks sunscreen products pose for aquatic environments.

Members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine are concerned about ultraviolet filters, the key active ingredient in sunscreen and a persistent contaminant that has cropped up in aquatic environments. In a report released today, the National Academies called on EPA to conduct an ecological risk assessment of UV filters to better understand the risks they may be posing.

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Such an assessment is needed not only to protect aquatic life, the authors argued, but also because sunscreen is critical for staving off cancer and other sun-related diseases in people.

“An ecological risk assessment will help inform efforts to understand the environmental impacts of UV filters, and potentially clarify a path forward for managing sunscreens,” said Charles Menzie, chair of the committee behind the report. “At the same time, it is clear decisionmakers need more information as they navigate protecting both the environment and human health.”

The National Academies, a nonprofit and nongovernmental arm authorized by Congress, provides widely respected advice and recommendations for regulators. The organization’s work often focuses on how best to protect both people and the planet, as is the case with the new sunscreen report.

UV filters, which help to block the sun’s rays, are key for skin protection and a mainstay in hot climates as well as during summer months globally. But as the active ingredient in sunscreen, they also raise a host of questions around toxicity and environmental harm. States like Hawaii and Florida have gone so far as to target specific chemicals used in sunscreen due to alarm over ecological impacts (E&E Daily, July 30, 2021).

“Without a doubt, a variety of compounds present in the mixture of chemical pollution entering our environments are a contributing cause of ecological decline,” the report’s authors stated.

The report looked at the 17 UV filters currently in use across the United States, including a range of organic filters used in chemical sunscreen and the two inorganic filters used in mineral sunscreen. The authors raised a range of concerns around those filters, including bioaccumulation and the harm chemicals could pose for aquatic life, both in plants and animal tissue.

Still, science around the full implications of the UV filters is vague at best. The National Academies report also raised concerns about potentially discouraging the use of sunscreen, at a time when only a third of the U.S. population uses it regularly.

“[C]onsistent use of broad-spectrum, SPF [sun protection factor] 30 sunscreen when outdoors reduces the risk of developing skin cancer, photoaging, and sunburn,” the researchers observed, while adding the caveat that research has been focused on people with fair skin.

The report noted that any restrictions on UV filters could lead to decreased use of sunscreen, possibly with deadly consequences. “Sunscreen use is part of a recommended regimen of photoprotection that also includes the use of protective clothing, hats, sunglasses, sun avoidance, and shade-seeking behaviors,” it asserted.

Juggling environmental protection with concern for people is nothing new in conversations around sunscreen. For years, organizations like the Environmental Working Group have highlighted qualms about some sunscreen ingredients while emphasizing the need for sun protection.

Many concerns usually center on chemical sunscreens. Those products include chemicals like oxybenzone, which has raised questions around hormone disruption and other health risks (Greenwire, June 3).

But mineral sunscreens, which rely on the inorganic compounds titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, also pose problems. They can wash off more quickly in water, and they are also infamous for the thick white streaks they leave, which have proved frustrating for consumers including many people of color.

Environmental groups have nonetheless tended to recommend mineral sunscreen over chemical sunscreen due to lingering questions around active ingredients. But they have similarly noted that a lack of data and research has made it hard to make truly protective choices regarding sunscreen.

The National Academies researchers arrived at the same conclusion. In order to better understand the implications for people and the environment alike, they argued that an ecological risk assessment is greatly needed. That study, they said, should look at UV filters not only individually but also as mixtures, given that sunscreens typically include a combination of active ingredients.

The report authors recommended that EPA share the results of a subsequent report with the Food and Drug Administration, so that the agency can factor key findings into its own process around overseeing UV filters.

“Federal agencies and industry should fund and pursue research to fill these information gaps,” said Menzie.

Tim Carroll, a spokesperson for EPA, said the agency appreciated the NAS committee’s “comprehensive evaluation of UV filters for the protection of the environment and human health.” He said EPA is in the process of reviewing the report before determining next steps.

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