As a kid, I’d go to the pool at 8:00 a.m. for swim team practice and spend the entire day either in the pool or nearby, soaking up the sun, sometimes remembering to “moisturize” with Johnson’s baby oil. I did that nearly every day during summers for several years. Thank goodness we know better now and can be safe and protected with our skin cancer protecting, high level SPF sunscreens.
Or can we?
There’s been a lot of noise lately about sunscreens. As a bit of a skeptic, I had to do my own research. It’s been a challenge sorting through the hype, fear-mongering, assumptions and “urban legend” mixed in between fact-based studies. Sorry to report, there is, indeed, well-documented, but poorly publicized studies on the inadequacies and potential dangers of sunscreens.
Hype aside, here’s some bits of what I found:
Buyer and Slatherer Beware!
In 2007, following heavy pressure for decades to develop safety standards, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States stated, “FDA is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer.” I don’t know about you, but that surprised me. So, what are we smearing all over our bodies, faces, and our children!? And, why?
This information combined with the inclusion of some “highly questionable” (my interpretation) ingredients gives cause for apprehension:
- Oxybenzone, one of the more controversial ingredients in sunscreens, is used in 60 percent of non-mineral-based sunscreens in the U.S. It ‘s been found to be hormone disrupting, also releases free radicals, and can trigger allergic reactions. Though its impact on humans is not yet clear, oxybenzone is NOT recommended for use on children. As of this writing, oxybenzone can be found in some formulas of popular brands of sunscreens including Banana Boat, Coppertone and Hawaiian Tropics. For other names that oxybenzone might be listed as, go to the EWG (Environmental Working Group)* Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database.
- Retinyl Palmitate is another sunscreen ingredient causing concern. It is used in some 41 percent of sunscreens distributed in the U.S. Studies by the National Center for Toxicological Research and the National Toxicology Program suggest that retinyl palmitate may be photocarcinogenic (in other words, in the presence of UV rays, the compound and skin change biochemically and could result in cancer). Additionally, over the years, the FDA scientists have published some 17 studies on the toxicity and chemistry of retinyl palmitate on the skin. The conclusions are similar to that of the NCTR and the NTP. While evidence for humans is yet conclusive, the EWG suggests that we avoid sunscreen products with retinyl palmitate.
- Overselling: Studies** show that people typically apply about 1/4 of the recommended amount of sunscreen. In fact, “in everyday practice, a product labeled SPF 100 actually performs like SPF 3.2, an SPF 30 rating equates to a 2.3 and SPF 15 translates to 2. Moreover, FDA scientists say SPF claims above 50 cannot be reliably substantiated,” states the EWG.
What To Do!?
The jury’s still officially out on the aforementioned ingredients, so “conventional wisdom” says we should still take Mary Schmich‘s advice and/or the lyrics of “Everybody’s Free” and “WEAR SUNSCREEN“, but do so with care and:
- read the ingredients, and until we know more,
- avoid products that contain oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate.
- Protect your body with clothing and wear a hat and sunglasses.
- Avoid the sun. Yes, we still need our vitamin D, but what’s considered “sufficient” is measured in minutes per day of sun exposure, NOT time baking! (The amount of sun exposure you get walking from your car to the beach and putting down your towel is possibly more than recommended.)
- The U.S. Center for Disease Control provides the following tips for proper sunscreen application: 1) Be sure to apply enough sunscreen. As a rule of thumb, use one ounce/29 grams (a handful) to cover your entire body. 2) Use on all parts of your skin exposed to the sun, including the ears, back, shoulders, and the back of the knees and legs. 3) Apply thickly and thoroughly. 4) Be careful when applying sunscreen around the eyes.
- What do you think of bringing back parasols as a fashion accessory?
Where to Find Safe Products?
I’ve come across a couple of non-commercial (and what I believe are dependable) lists of sunscreen products that are free of the above ingredients, as well as a few others.
The Daily Green – 21 of the Best Sunscreens
Environmental Working Group – Best Beach and Sport Sunscreens
Good News for Europeans
- In Europe, products containing oxybenzone must carry a warning label.
- Europe is often cited for the fact that it markets sunscreen products with active ingredients that are decades ahead of what is available in the U.S. While U.S. sunscreens will block out UVB rays, European products can contain ingredients that block both UVB and UVA rays. While UVB rays are said to be the most potent and previously thought to be the main cause of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “Studies over the past two decades … show that … UVA contributes to and may even initiate the development of skin cancers.” (NOTE: some UVA-protecting products have recently become available in the U.S., but at exorbitant prices)
I, personally, am going to go through our medicine cabinet and get online to see what our sunscreen products contain. How about you?
===== ===== ===== ===== ===== ===== ===== =====