Health & Fitness

Here’s one chemical to avoid when shopping for sunscreen

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When you reach for sunscreen to take to the pool this summer, flip it over in the store and check the ingredients.

If avobenzone is among them, you might want to put it back on the shelf.

New research suggests that the chemical can break down when exposed to a combination of light and chlorinated water.

“It can degrade into some very harmful compounds, some of which are known carcinogens,” said Daniel Aires, a dermatologist with the University of Kansas Health System. “What isn’t known is how much is absorbed into the skin, or if it’s to a level that can cause or potentially increase the risk of cancer. But this is certainly alarming.”

Aires said avobenzone should be of particular concern for young children, who might lick their arms for no apparent reason after they’ve been in the pool and ingest the chemical after it has broken down.

“For smaller kids especially, I think it’s probably just best to avoid it in case it goes in the mouth,” Aires said.

Aires said there’s plenty of sunscreens that don’t have avobenzone. The safest, most proven products are based on zinc and titanium, but not micro-sized zinc and titanium, he said, and not sprays. Lotions are better.

Aires, Daniel Dermatology 2014
Daniel Aires KU Health System

“The drawback to those sunscreens is they tend to look kind of chalky,” Aires said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first approved an avobenzone-based sunscreen product in 1988.

If sunscreen with avobenzone is all that’s on hand, Aires said it’s better to use it than expose skin to sunlight for prolonged periods without any protection. The research suggesting avobenzone might cause harm is still preliminary, while research connecting sunburns to increased risk of cancer is definitive.

“If the choice is between getting a sunburn and using a sunscreen with some risk, it’s probably better to use the sunscreen,” Aires said.

Andy Marso: 816-234-4055, @andymarso