ASK THE EXPERT: SPF, Skincare + Endocrine Disruption

With your skin being your body’s largest organ, it’s no surprise that what you put on it really does matter. The European Union, the standard by which we follow, has banned over 1,400+ questionable ingredients. The U.S. has banned 30 and we believe that’s just not good enough especially as it relates to chemical sunscreen actives and the potential systemic effects of their absorption as noted in several recent studies, including the FDA’s own in January.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Article, titled "Sunscreen Chemicals Accumulate in Body at High Levels," again reinforces the link between chemical SPF, our health and the results of another study showing higher than FDA-acceptable levels of potentially endocrine disruptive SPF chemicals in the body days after usage.  The study looks at all U.S. sunscreen filters and showcases that several of the FDA approved chemical sunscreens, not just Oxybenzone, continue to be potentially questionable offenders to our health. While the new FDA rulings have again been postponed until late 2021 from last November, the FDA has resorted back to it’s 1999 ruling with respect to those chemicals on the market today.  Confusing and a bit outdated, no? We get it.

So, we asked Dr. Alissia Zenhausern, NMD, who you may have seen in InStyle, Shape + Forbes, to talk endocrine disruptors + skincare with us.

Dr Zen

What is your endocrine system?

The endocrine system is a comprehensive network for  chemical signals and organs that include not only your reproductive hormones, but your thyroid and adrenal glands as well.  It is affected by everyday toxins + pollutants that can be found in our environment, from the water we drink to the foods we eat, to where we live and the products we put on our skin. Many of these chemical disruptors can mimic or block the function of our natural hormones, which can lead to a variety of hormone imbalances. Small changes to reduce the exposure to these disruptors do add up to a positive, healthy difference.

What are a few endocrine disruptors we can easily spot in our beauty products?

Beyond chemical sunscreens, look for offenders like synthetic fragrance, which is the home to thousands of chemicals often including parabens, which don't need to be disclosed. Also, phthalates, siloxanes and cyclic silicones.  Endocrine disrupting chemicals can impact conditions like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), Infertility, Endometriosis and Menopause.  Focus on making it a habit to read the ingredients on your beauty products. Ingredients are listed based on the amount of the ingredient that is present in the product. In other words, if the first product listed on the ingredient list is a questionable ingredient, the product likely contains a high volume of that ingredient.

Why is the FDA looking at SPF chemical safety in particular (again)?

This is the second time in a year the FDA is reviewing the safety and accumulation of SPF chemicals. It matters alot because chemical SPF -- not just Oxybenzone but also the five other filters found in most SPF's today -- have been shown to accumulate in the body and last for several weeks at levels higher than the FDA allows.  Many of those ingredients also could also be measured in breast milk and the urine long after they’ve been used, which reinforces that what you are putting on your skin is being directly absorbed by the body and can also be passed to a child if you are breastfeeding. I always recommend reaching for a mineral-only SPF that also excludes other common endocrine disruptive ingredients, to avoid these concerns.

Why does that matter?

Many products we use or consume can accumulate in our bodies, and not all of them are concerning, however the reason this FDA review matters so much is because the FDA says that active ingredients found in the blood at 0.5 nanograms per mL or more should be analyzed for increased risk of cancer, birth defects or other adverse effects. The studies they performed with chemical SPF being used as directed showed that these filters remained in the body at higher than acceptable levels for weeks after use.  Studies also have shown those same chemical sunscreens are questionable endocrine disrupters, which is my medical area of focus. 

Are there foods we can eat to support a healthy endocrine system?

Yes! Focus on organic fruits and vegetables as much as possible as many traditional produce is sprayed with endocrine disrupting pesticides. Consider focusing on the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list which outlines 12 foods with the highest measured levels of pesticides. You can download the free guide at EWG.org. To help balance the cost of organic produce, you can also consider using companies like Imperfect Produce which sends you produce that isn’t perfect in shape but perfectly healthy and completely organic! A few additional endocrine system supporters are:

  • Avocados (an avocado a day keeps the dermatologist away) 
  • Cruciferous vegetables (like spinach, kale, brussel sprouts) that support phase I and phase 2 detoxification of the liver helping to manage hormone production and detoxification
  • Fermented foods (like sauerkraut, tempeh, miso) because they contain prebiotics which helps support your gut microbiome
  • Hydration, hydration, hydration!

Note: Dr. Alissia Zenhausern,NMD, (Dr. Zen) is a licensed Naturopathic Medical Doctor practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. As a naturopathic doctor, she combines the best of modern medicine with the latest in natural medicine to provide her patients with a unique treatment that is customized to her patients needs. She has been featured as an expert in a variety of publications including Shape, InStyle, and Forbes. All opinions are her own and it is recommended to always contact your personal medical provider before adjusting your diet, supplements or if you have questions on the beauty products you are using!