Plasticizers: Sunscreen suspected of being harmful – what is the truth?

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Written By Kampretz Bianca

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This is surprising news: At the beginning of the year, authorities increasingly detected a metabolic degradation product of plasticizers in urine samples from hundreds of children and adults in day care centers. Its name: Mono-n-hexyl phthalate. First it was State Secretariat for Nature, Environment and Consumer Protection North Rhine-Westphalia I found it, so Federal Environment Agency during the preliminary assessment of data from the German Environmental Study.

The critical point is that the substance is considered harmful to reproduction and health. But where does it come from? Why is this suddenly occurring more frequently? The search for causes is ongoing. There is still no clarity – just speculation. Become a possible source Sunscreen also because urine samples from the summer months were noticeably elevated – what’s the point? We compile the current state of knowledge.


All questions at a glance


Plasticizers and UV filters under discussion

What still applies to sun protection

Plasticizers and UV filters under discussion

What substance was detected in the urine samples?

It has the complicated name mono-n-hexyl phthalate, abbreviated MnHexP. It may arise as a metabolic degradation product of several plasticizers in the body, including the plasticizer di-n-hexyl phthalate (DnHexP).

Are suspected plasticizers allowed in cosmetics?

The deliberate use of DnHexP in cosmetic products is prohibited under the EU Cosmetics Regulation. Other starting materials that could lead to the appearance of the degradation product MnHexP are currently being examined as possible sources.

Research into the causes is moving in different directions: plasticizers can migrate from certain plastic packaging into cosmetics and food. However, products can also be unintentionally contaminated during the manufacturing process – a frequently used UV filter came into discussion.

Could a sunscreen be the source of exposure?

It is currently completely open. The UV filter Diethylamino Hydroxybenzoyl Hexyl Benzoate, or DHHB for short, is suspected. Apparently, the plasticizer DnHexP can be formed as an undesirable by-product during its production, which in turn can be metabolized by the human body to form MnHExP.

O Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) highlights that in addition to sunscreens, other products could also be considered sources. To date, the BfR “does not have reliable information that cosmetic products containing UV filters are actually significantly contaminated with substances that could lead to the formation of MnHexP”.

How dangerous to health are the pollutants found in urine so far?

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment continually addresses the topic and writes in a opinionthat both the intake of the degradation product MnHexP and its possible starting materials “should be reduced as much as possible”.

A re-evaluation of the data confirms calculations from previous BfR models: The MnHexP concentrations detected in the urine samples do not give rise to any major concern and do not represent an immediate health risk. According to the current state of knowledge, sunscreens are contaminated. with DnHexP also do not pose an acute danger, undesirable health effects are “very unlikely”.

Has Stiftung Warentest already detected plasticizers in sunscreens?

Yes, in our current Sunscreen test we screened products for plasticizers for the first time. We found what we were looking for in 4 out of 20 and detected DnHexP – all four contain the DHHB UV filter. According to an assessment by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the concentrations analyzed do not represent any acute health risk. We rate these products as Sufficient in the critical ingredient test and Overall Satisfactory.

We expect stricter quality control from suppliers. The test also shows that contamination can be prevented. Another six sunscreens tested also use DHHB, but we did not find the plasticizer in question in them.

Sunscreens generally contain significantly lower amounts of the UV filter DHHB than permitted by the EU Cosmetics Regulation. This allows up to 10 percent. In our test tables we always indicate the included UV filters transparently, including in sunscreen for adults – every second has DHHB as an ingredient. It is listed in the “Type of sun protection filter” table with the letter “j”.

What still applies to sun protection

Should I avoid sunscreen now?

No! It remains essential to comprehensively protect the skin against harmful UV radiation. None of the suspicions that have arisen so far justifies the resignation. However, it is clearly proven that UV light can cause sunburn and, in the long term, even skin cancer. Regular and generous application of cream, tightly woven clothing and long breaks in the shade provide protection.

Can I continue to use sunscreen with DHHB UV filter?

Yes. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment considers any health compromise unlikely. This would also apply if sunscreens contained up to 10% of a UV filter contaminated with up to 0.3% DnHexP – a generous assumption. The concentrations of DnHexP that we determined in the test are significantly lower.
This too Chemical and Veterinary Research Office Karlsruhe has already reacted and tested sunscreens for DnHexP. The experts found what they were looking for in some of the products. However, the detected levels are also consistently lower than those in the calculation model of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, so they should not represent any harm to health.

Tip: Stiftung Warentest regularly addresses topics related to the prevention and treatment of skin cancer, e.g. during tests Skin Screening Apps and in the evaluation of Medication for actinic keratosisa precursor to non-melanoma skin cancer.

How should I protect myself and my child from the sun?

Sun creams, lotions and sprays are important aids – including those with a DHHB UV filter. If you want to avoid it just in case, you can also find products in our database that do not contain DHHB: In our Test of 19 sunscreens for children in 2023 there were seven who did not use the filter – but not all maintained the promised sun protection. In the current test of Sunscreen for adults ten managed without him.

Tip: In our test tables we indicate the UV filters included in the line of sun protection filters, pay attention to the letter “j”, which stands for DHHB.

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