Spray sunscreens hit store shelves a few years ago with a “why didn’t I think of that?” level of excitement.
But, individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions may need to live without the convenience of sunscreen housed in a spray bottle. Children and infants, particularly those with asthma, are likely at the highest risk of seeing the effects of aerosol sunscreen on the lungs.
According to UR Medicine pulmonologist, Mark W. Frampton, MD, any aerosol can trigger an asthma attack or make asthma worse in patients with sensitive airways. Asthma, a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways, affects people of all ages. Of the more than 25 million people in the United States known to have asthma, about seven million are children.
An important part of proper asthma management is determining what factors trigger an attack and taking steps to avoid the identified triggers. Not all patients with asthma, a chronic lung condition that causes inflammation, constriction of the airways, and difficulty breathing, have the same triggers. Many experts, however, agree that aerosols are a relatively common culprit.
Spurred by the Sunscreen Innovation Act, enacted by Congress in November 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has launched an investigation into the safety and effectiveness of nonprescription sunscreen active ingredients. Additionally, the agency has requested data on spray sunscreens to establish effectiveness and to determine whether they present a safety concern if inhaled unintentionally.
FDA representatives have voiced concerns that spray sunscreen users may not apply enough product to achieve the intended SPF value, a concern echoed by experts from Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group (EWG). In fact, the EWG has added spray sunscreens to its EWG Sunscreen Hall of Fame, a compilation of products experts recommend you leave on the store shelves and out of your beach bag.
Effects on Lung Health
As far as respiratory issues go, the industry cannot seem to come to an agreement on what the inhaled aerosol particles can do to the sensitive tissues of our lungs. If sunscreen manufacturers don’t deliver data to support the healthy use of these products soon, the FDA may make a move to ban all spray sunscreens from the market.
“I’m not surprised spray sunscreen can get into the lungs and affect those with asthma,” Frampton shared. “Part of asthma is having twitchy airways, meaning the muscles around the airways respond and contract to inhaled substances in ways that normal airways do not.”
In his medical practice, Frampton tests asthma patients with inhaled medications to see how twitchy, or sensitive, the airways are. Many people who have asthma can’t be around people who smoke, and need to avoid pollution, strong perfume, and dusty places. “Those triggers can make the airway contract,” Frampton said.
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The triggers, Frampton explained, are not just an issue for airway muscles, but also increase the patient’s mucus production. “It’s all part of the reactive airways of asthma,” he said.
Any aerosol, like hairspray, can land in the lungs and be a trigger for patients with asthma. Frampton points to the common scenario of a wife asking her husband to refrain from using his spray deodorant in the bathroom because she has found it irritates her airways. “It’s the droplets or particles that land in the airway that trigger a response,” he said.
A deeper concern is that particles small enough to get into the lungs could potentially get into the bloodstream as well. “The lungs in healthy people have incredible defense mechanisms against inhaled particles or aerosols,” Frampton qualified. “Occasional inhalation is generally not a problem for healthy lungs.”
Frampton believes it’s inaccurate to say all asthmatics can’t use aerosols. “But if an individual has asthma and aerosol sensitivity, then he probably shouldn’t use spray sunscreen.”
Ultimately, until the FDA says otherwise, individuals need to weigh the risks of spray sunscreen and determine whether the convenience is worth the potential health issues. In Frampton’s opinion, it’s more efficient and effective to use lotion sunscreen anyway.
Rebecca Mayer Knutsen is on staff. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org