Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial

JAMA. 2020 Jan 21;323(3):256-267. doi: 10.1001/jama.2019.20747.


Importance: A prior pilot study demonstrated the systemic absorption of 4 sunscreen active ingredients; additional studies are needed to determine the systemic absorption of additional active ingredients and how quickly systemic exposure exceeds 0.5 ng/mL as recommended by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Objective: To assess the systemic absorption and pharmacokinetics of the 6 active ingredients (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate) in 4 sunscreen products under single- and maximal-use conditions.

Design, setting, and participants: Randomized clinical trial at a clinical pharmacology unit (West Bend, Wisconsin) was conducted in 48 healthy participants. The study was conducted between January and February 2019.

Interventions: Participants were randomized to 1 of 4 sunscreen products, formulated as lotion (n = 12), aerosol spray (n = 12), nonaerosol spray (n = 12), and pump spray (n = 12). Sunscreen product was applied at 2 mg/cm2 to 75% of body surface area at 0 hours on day 1 and 4 times on day 2 through day 4 at 2-hour intervals, and 34 blood samples were collected over 21 days from each participant.

Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome was the maximum plasma concentration of avobenzone over days 1 through 21. Secondary outcomes were the maximum plasma concentrations of oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate over days 1 through 21.

Results: Among 48 randomized participants (mean [SD] age, 38.7 [13.2] years; 24 women [50%]; 23 white [48%], 23 African American [48%], 1 Asian [2%], and 1 of unknown race/ethnicity [2%]), 44 (92%) completed the trial. Geometric mean maximum plasma concentrations of all 6 active ingredients were greater than 0.5 ng/mL, and this threshold was surpassed on day 1 after a single application for all active ingredients. For avobenzone, the overall maximum plasma concentrations were 7.1 ng/mL (coefficient of variation [CV], 73.9%) for lotion, 3.5 ng/mL (CV, 70.9%) for aerosol spray, 3.5 ng/mL (CV, 73.0%) for nonaerosol spray, and 3.3 ng/mL (CV, 47.8%) for pump spray. For oxybenzone, the concentrations were 258.1 ng/mL (CV, 53.0%) for lotion and 180.1 ng/mL (CV, 57.3%) for aerosol spray. For octocrylene, the concentrations were 7.8 ng/mL (CV, 87.1%) for lotion, 6.6 ng/mL (CV, 78.1%) for aerosol spray, and 6.6 ng/mL (CV, 103.9%) for nonaerosol spray. For homosalate, concentrations were 23.1 ng/mL (CV, 68.0%) for aerosol spray, 17.9 ng/mL (CV, 61.7%) for nonaerosol spray, and 13.9 ng/mL (CV, 70.2%) for pump spray. For octisalate, concentrations were 5.1 ng/mL (CV, 81.6%) for aerosol spray, 5.8 ng/mL (CV, 77.4%) for nonaerosol spray, and 4.6 ng/mL (CV, 97.6%) for pump spray. For octinoxate, concentrations were 7.9 ng/mL (CV, 86.5%) for nonaerosol spray and 5.2 ng/mL (CV, 68.2%) for pump spray. The most common adverse event was rash, which developed in 14 participants.

Conclusions and relevance: In this study conducted in a clinical pharmacology unit and examining sunscreen application among healthy participants, all 6 of the tested active ingredients administered in 4 different sunscreen formulations were systemically absorbed and had plasma concentrations that surpassed the FDA threshold for potentially waiving some of the additional safety studies for sunscreens. These findings do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT03582215.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acrylates / blood
  • Acrylates / pharmacokinetics
  • Adult
  • Benzophenones / blood
  • Benzophenones / pharmacokinetics
  • Cinnamates / blood
  • Cinnamates / pharmacokinetics
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Propiophenones / blood*
  • Propiophenones / pharmacokinetics
  • Salicylates / blood
  • Salicylates / pharmacokinetics
  • Skin Absorption*
  • Sunscreening Agents / adverse effects
  • Sunscreening Agents / pharmacokinetics*


  • Acrylates
  • Benzophenones
  • Cinnamates
  • Propiophenones
  • Salicylates
  • Sunscreening Agents
  • 2-ethylhexyl salicylate
  • octylmethoxycinnamate
  • octocrylene
  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzone
  • homosalate

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT03582215