With the summertime ritual of keeping children covered with sunscreen, we want to get the word out about spray sunscreens.
According to a Consumer Reports survey, people choose sunscreen in the spray form because it’s a fast, easy way to cover their kids.
It may be fast and easy, but this is exactly what makes it far less effective and more risky than you could ever imagine.
Here are 6 reasons why:
1. Inhalation of Sunscreen Ingredients is Dangerous and Nearly Impossible to Avoid
In 2011, after the FDA realized that it lacked data on sunscreen sprays, including the health impact of inhaling aerosolized particles, it asked sunscreen manufacturers to provide information to assess sunscreen sprays’ safety and effectiveness. The FDA proposed warning labels such as “When using this product keep away from face to avoid breathing it” and “Use in a well-ventilated area.” However, a final rule and accompanying guidance has yet to be released. Instead the FDA simply directs consumers to read the warning labels provided by manufacturers, one of which is “spray sunscreens should never be applied directly to your face.”
This warning minimizes the chance that particles will easily enter your child’s eyes, nose and mouth. But can you be sure your child will actually hold their breath throughout the spraying so they don’t inhale the chemicals into their lungs?
Even if a spray sunscreen uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are considered safer for being mineral-based ingredients, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) “strongly discourages the use of loose powder makeup or spray sunscreens using titanium dioxide or zinc oxide of any particle size.”
In fact, The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC) has concluded, “Titanium dioxide is possible carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) based on sufficient evidence in experimental animals and inadequate evidence from epidemiological studies.”
Consumer Reports’ advice is:
Don’t use sprays on children, unless you have no other product available. In that case, spray the sunscreen onto your hands and rub it on. As with all sunscreens, be especially careful on the face, avoiding the eyes and mouth.
Essentially, you’re back to applying the spray sunscreen as you would a lotion.
2. The Chemical Ingredients Are Linked To Health Issues
Here is a list of the chemicals that you’ll typically find in a spray sunscreen:
Active Ingredients: Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Oxybenzone
Inactive Ingredients: Alcohol Denat., Isobutene, Dmiethicone, Acrylates/Octylacrylamide Copolymer, Trisiloxane, Diethylhexyl 2,6- Naphthalate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Fragrance
One of the most commonly used chemicals is also the one that causes the most concern, oxybenzone.
The EWG reports that results of a 2008 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study “reveals that 97% of Americans are contaminated with a widely-used sunscreen ingredient called oxybenzone that has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage. A companion study … revealed that this chemical is linked to low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy.”
In addition, oxybenzone and other active ingredients in sunscreen formulations have been shown to be penetration enhancers, allowing other chemicals to more easily penetrate the skin.
In February 2019, the agency released its final draft sunscreens monograph, which contains insufficient health and safety data to designate 12 of the 16 sunscreen filters allowed for use in the U.S. as “generally recognized as safe and effective,” or GRASE. These 12 ingredients include some of the most commonly used UV filters, including oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone.
According to the agency, “nearly all of these sunscreen active ingredients … have limited or no data characterizing their absorption.” In 2019 and 2020, FDA published two studies showing that the ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone are all systemically absorbed into the body after a single use (Matta 2019, Matta 2020). The FDA also found that the sunscreen ingredients could be detected on the skin and in blood weeks after application ended (Matta 2020).
These findings are troubling, because they show that sunscreen chemicals are circulating in the blood, and the FDA has indicated that the agency does not have enough information to determine whether the chemicals are causing harm.
No one knows if it’s safe when these chemicals are inhaled.
3. Inadequate Coverage = Inadequate Protection
How much sunscreen spray should you apply?
This is one of the questions the FDA was trying to answer (and still has not answered) when it began its analysis in 2011. They noted,
Due to the different modes of dispensing and application between sprays and the other dosage forms, we do not know if consumers obtain the same protection with sprays as these other dosage forms. With sprays, we also do not know how much of the typical dispensed amount is effectively transferred to the skin. Adequate, uniform coverage of sprays may also be difficult to assess, because some sprays are applied in a thin, clear layer which is more difficult to visualize than other dosage forms.
In an interview with Professor Sanchia Aranda, the chief executive of Australia’s Cancer Council, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “about a quarter of an average bottle of aerosol sunscreen needs to be applied every two hours to ensure you are fully protected.” That means that just after 2 hours at the pool, you should be half-way done with a bottle.
But after receiving repeated consumer complaints that sunscreen sprays offered no protection, it became clear to the Cancer Council that people did not know how to use them properly. So in 2017, they strongly recommended against using any spray sunscreens and discontinued their own line of aerosol sunscreens.
For those who think they’re saving money with sunscreen sprays, Australia’s consumer group and Consumer Reports’ sister organization, Choice, discovered that only 40 to 60 per cent of a typical sunscreen spray bottle contains sunscreen.
The rest is the propellant.
Which means you’d go through a FULL bottle after just 3 hours at the pool.
4. People Have Caught on Fire After Applying Spray Sunscreen
Sunscreen sprays may contain flammable ingredients such as alcohol. The FDA notes that many flammable products have a label warning against their use near an open flame.
Even if your bottle did have a warning, would you imagine you could catch on fire after the spray had been rubbed into your skin and dried?
The FDA became aware of five such incidents where people suffered significant burns that required medical treatment:
The ignition sources were varied and involved lighting a cigarette, standing too close to a lit citronella candle, approaching a grill, and in one case, doing some welding.
Although the FDA states that the manufacturers of these sunscreens voluntarily recalled the products afterwards, there are still many spray sunscreens on the market that are flammable.
Imagine coating your child with sunscreen spray in preparation for an all-day summertime barbecue and having to tell them not to get close to the barbeque because they may catch on fire.
5. Swimming Pools and Sunscreen: New Research
In pools, does the sunscreen parents slather and spray on their child really stay on and protect them as all parents hope?
Dr. Albert Lebedev, a Doctor of Chemistry at Lomonosov Moscow State University, is one of the scientists conducting leading studies on avobenzone, which may be the most popular UV filter in the world. He and other scientists set out to understand what happens to avobenzone when applied via sunscreen in chlorinated water under the sunlight.
They found that it can break down into hazardous chemical compounds right on the skin.
The press release of the findings explained that avobenzone breaks down and forms “various organic compounds, belonging to the classes of aromatic acids and aldehydes, phenols and acetyl benzenes. Phenols and chlorinated acetyl benzenes have turned out to be the most toxic products.”
While their study showed that this transformation can happen right on the skin, what happens when children ingest this toxic pool water?
6. Environmental Concerns
In July 2018, Gov. David Ige of Hawaii signed a bill to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate as research has proven these sunscreen ingredients negatively impact coral reefs. It goes into effect January 2021.
Cheryl Woodley, Ph.D., co-author of the study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, compiled the research to present to the members of the Maui County Council. Her summary is a glimpse of the harm that’s being done.
The preponderance of scientific evidence indicates that oxybenzone is toxic to coral and threatens overall coral reef health by:
Inducing coral bleaching;
harming or killing coral larvae by inducing gross deformities, DNA damage, and bleaching;
acting as an endocrine disruptor; and
bioaccumulating in coral tissue.
The National Park Service states, “Research tells us that 4,000 to 6,000 TONS of sunscreen enters reef areas annually. This does not spread out rapidly or evenly over the entire ocean, but concentrates on popular tourist sites.”
And, that has an unintended result: Testing of the Honolulu municipal potable water revealed that in addition to being lethal to coral, these chemicals, including oxybenzone, end up in municipal water plants with no way to filter them out so people are ingesting them through their water.
Sunscreen Should Be a Last Resort, Sunscreen Spray Should Not Be an Option
Sunscreen spray continues to fly off shelves for its fast and easy promise. But when you realize …
You actually need to spray 3-4 times every 2 hours to be effective;
You’ll go through a full bottle for any given swim day and create a toxic chemical in pool water that your child will swallow;
You are coating your child in a substance that can disrupt their hormones;
Aerosol particles will most likely get in your child’s lungs causing unknown harm;
It’s possible their skin may catch on fire.
… it’s easy to see that given the health implications, convenience is not the factor that should be driving your choice.
The Most Convenient, Effective, Safe, Affordable Sun Protection – and Waterproof
Consider this: All children put on a bathing suit to go in the water. What could be faster and easier than replacing that bathing suit with a full body UV protection swim suit? It avoids toxic chemicals1, avoids all the issues with sunscreen, doesn’t come off in the water and is actually waterproof unlike all sunscreens.
Safe Baby Healthy Child agrees with EWG’s stance that sunscreen should be a last resort and sunscreen sprays should not be used at all.
See our “Simple Sun Care Guide” with recommendations for sun protection swimwear and hats and a chemical-free zinc oxide sunscreen lotion.
¹Choose sun protection swimwear that has not been treated with toxic chemicals.