HAVE FUN IN THE SUN: Safety of Sunscreens, UV Protection meaning, and much more!

July 24, 2022

This is a recording of “Have Fun in the Sun,” a Zoom presentation held on June 16, 2022.

Below is an excerpt of a presentation given by Dr. Melissa Burnett, Board Certified Dermatologist, about skin protection with the most up to date sunscreen research. In this presentation, Dr. Burnett’s focus is on safety of sunscreens, what UV protection means, how to understand the labeling on sunscreens and environmental aspects to consider when using sunscreens.

Thank you so much for inviting me to give this talk tonight. It’s definitely very timely as we enter into the summer months, and congratulations and shout out to Dinno Health for all that they do in the communities in the greater Boston area. You guys have a wonderful organization and do a lot of great things for the community, so thanks for that.

We’re going to talk about sun protection and it’s funny because as I was preparing this talk I thought, at the end of it, maybe no one’s going to want to wear sunscreen! The point is to not make you not want to wear sunscreen, but to help you become a better consumer of sun protection because there’s a lot of information out there. It is actually a little bit hard to sift through the data as a consumer, so I hope that this will help you to be a more versed consumer.

What is the difference between sunscreen versus sunblock? With sunscreen, these are chemical-based sunscreens that actually will absorb sunlight. They will convert UV radiation to something that won’t damage your skin, whereas sunblock is titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and they’ll reflect light. So, there is a difference between sunscreen and sunblock.

A lot of you are probably aware that there’s some information and maybe some controversy about sunscreen ingredients right now and there has been for several years. I’m going to talk about something called GRASE, which means generally regarded as safe and effective. This is a term used by the FDA when they are looking at skin care ingredients. When you look at sunscreen ingredients, there are a couple that are not generally regarded as safe and effective – that’s PABA and Trolamine Salicylate. PABA was a common ingredient in a lot of sunscreens about 20 years ago. I’m sure many of us have actually used this. It was taken off the market and is no longer considered safe.

Generally regarded as safe and effective class one, category one means they really truly are generally regarded as safe and effective and those are the mineral-based sunscreens. There are two ingredients that fit this category – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. That’s it. So, if you’re looking at the active ingredients on a sunscreen and there’s something else listed there, it’s not a mineral-based sunscreen alone. In a lot of sunscreens, one of the real issues is how these are advertised and marketed to the public. So a sunscreen may say mineral-based but it could have other chemical sunscreens in it if it has a mineral sunscreen. So, you do have to be careful as a consumer if that matters to you and you can decide by the end of this lecture if it does.

GRASE III means that there’s insufficient data for use for safety and there’s several of these that are listed. Many of these are in sunscreens that we’ll find at Acton Pharmacy, Keyes Drug, maybe not, but in the general stores we’ll find these active ingredients. This is since 1999 that these were listed. We’re going to go through a little bit more about these.

There are three sunscreens that were first developed in the 1940s and they first became regulated by the FDA in the 1970s. Between that time and around 2011, basically nothing happened. There was no research into the safety. They were just on the market; people were using them and there was no great data on how things were labeled. So, there’s a lot of confusion about sunscreens. I think the environmental working group, even though sometimes I don’t necessarily agree with exactly how they present data, I think they did a really good job of opening up and helping this conversation become more of a public one. Certainly, the American Academy of Dermatology has been trying to work with the FDA for many years to help regulate sunscreen and help this be more useful to patients.

To continue learning about sunscreen safety, watch the full presentation.