There is no clear consensus on whether sunscreens actually prevent cancer; in fact, there’s some evidence that sunscreens might increase the risk of the deadliest form of skin cancer in some people.
The U.S. lags far behind Europe, Japan and Australia in providing consumers with safe, high quality sunscreens. Why you might ask? Because the FDA is slow in evaluating and approving better sunscreen ingredients and new combinations – making it impossible for U.S. formulators to achieve the highest level of UVA protection in their products (Osterwalder, 2009).
If the regulatory proposal now under consideration takes effect in its current form, consumers’ choices may be improved in several respects. First, prospective purchasers would be clearly warned that most sunscreens do not adequately protect them from UVA exposure. Groundless claims like “all day protection,” “waterproof” and “sweatproof” would not pass muster. Exaggerated SPF claims would be prohibited. (FDA 2007).
Buying False Security
Products with high SPF ratings sell a false sense of security because most people using them stay out in the sun longer, still get burned (which increases risk of skin cancer) and subject their skin to large amounts of UVA radiation—the element of sunlight that does not burn but is believed responsible for considerable skin damage and cancer.
High SPF products, which protect against sunburn, often provide very little protection against UVA radiation. Additionally, according to EWG (Environmental Working Group), most people don’t get the high SPF they pay for and then they apply about a quarter of the recommended amount. In everyday practice, a product labeled SPF 100 really performs like SPF 3.2, an SPF 30 rating equates to a 2.3 and an SPF 15 translates to 2.
Estrogenic Chemical Sunscreens
What should be the greatest concern to consumers is the surge in exaggerated SPF claims (SPFs greater than 50) and recent developments in understanding the possible hazards of some sunscreen ingredients, in particular, new government data linking a form of vitamin A used in sunscreens to accelerated growth of skin tumors and lesions.
According to the most recent EWG report, consumers should avoid sunscreens with vitamin A — often labelled“retinyl palmitate” or “retinol” on the label.
One of the foremost research teams, in my opinion, is the EWG—unbiased research and dedicated to education. In their 2010 sunscreen report, (available FREE at 2011 Sunscreen Report*), they again flagged products with a chemical known as oxybenzone—a hormone-disrupting compound that penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. Biomonitoring surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected oxybenzone in the bodies of 97 percent of Americans tested.
In all, EWG researchers assessed 1,400 sunscreen products, including beach and sports lotions, sprays and creams, moisturizers, make-up and lip balms. The 39 top beach and sports products that earned EWG’s “green” rating all contain the minerals zinc or titanium. EWG researchers were unable find any non-mineral sunscreens that scored better than “yellow.”
Editors Update: Here is the link to the Environmental Working Group’s Safe Suncreen List for 2011. We will update this link when the 2012 list is available. We highly recommend you visit the Environmental Working Group website and bookmark it. Their team of scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers and computer programmers pores over government data, legal documents, scientific studies and their own laboratory tests to expose threats to your health and the environment, and to find solutions. Their research brings to light unsettling facts that you have a right to know. When there take some time to explore the eye-opening Skin Deep: Safe Cosmetics Database.
Even worse for your health is the fact that many common free radical generating sunscreen chemicals also have estrogen like-effects. Such effects can increase cancers, cause birth defects in children, lower sperm counts and penis size in men, plus a plethora of other medical problems. These effects are similar to many banned chemicals such as DDT, Dioxin, and PCBs.
Estrogenic chemicals can mimic hormonal (or real) estrogen, the key female sex hormone. When the body’s hormone receptors recognize the estrogenic chemical as estrogen, the result is feminization of the tissue. Some of these effects may be more subtle than physical abnormalities and may manifest themselves as behavioral changes (Fox et al. 1978), such as aberrant behavior of birds during nesting, which can have significant effects on their nesting success.
Government regulations require that new chemicals pass screening tests to determine that they do not cause cancer. But no rules yet require similar testing of chemicals for effects on reproductive hormones.
Effects of Estrogenic Chemicals in Humans
Lowered sperm counts
Sexual identify confusion—feminization
Smaller than normal penis size
More testicular cancer
Block or reduction of fetal imprinting of male behavior pattern in the brain
Increased breast cancerIncreased uterine cancer
Fibrocystic breast disease
The Ideal Sunscreen
The ideal sunscreen would completely block the UV rays that cause sunburn, immune suppression and damaging free radicals. It would remain effective on the skin for several hours and not form harmful ingredients when degraded by UV light. Its fragrance would only be from organic essential oils.
Unsurprisingly, there is currently no sunscreen that meets all of these criteria. The major choice in the U.S. is between “chemical” sunscreens, which have inferior stability, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body’s hormone systems, and “mineral” sunscreens (zinc and titanium), which often contain micronized or nano-scale particles of those minerals.
After reviewing the evidence, researchers determined that mineral sunscreens have the best safety profile of today’s choices. They are stable in sunlight, do not appear to penetrate the skin, and offer UVA protection— sorely lacking in most of today’s sunscreen products.
Mexoryl SX (ecamsule) is another good option, but in very few formulations. Tinosorb S and M could be great solutions but are not yet available in the U.S. For consumers who don’t like mineral products, researchers recommend sunscreens with avobenzone (3 percent for the best UVA protection) and without the notorious hormone disruptors oxybenzone or 4-MBC. Scientists have called for parents to avoid using oxybenzone on children due to penetration and toxicity concerns.
So what’s the best protection you might ask? I know this is going to sound foreign to you sun-lovers, but it’s a Hat, Shade, and a Long-sleeved Shirt/Blouse! When constraints of reality prevent that strategy, determine the most healthful option available among the products ranked in the Web site link for EWG above.