The need for protection from the sun’s harmful rays is not simply a summertime concern anymore, but one which needs to be addressed year round; no one wants to encounter a “Melanoma Monday.” But with so many chemicals that are untested, unsafe or not reliable how can we know which sunscreens are the healthiest ones for our body and not just adding to an already harmful health problem.
The Environmental Working Group EWG is a non-profit organization founded in 1993 interested in protecting the health of the public and environment. EWG researches areas of concern such as cell phone radiation, tuna safety, pesticides, and chemicals in cosmetics. It works to “protect from toxic chemicals in our food, water, air and the products we use every day.” For the past four years the EWG has provided consumers with information on the safety of a variety of sunscreen products and this year’s results were surprisingly cautionary when it comes to the sunscreens we expose our skin to.
The EWG, according to their testing and rating system, which is developed by paring ingredients with personal car product against 50 definitive toxicity and regulatory databases, recommends the use of only 39 sunscreen products out of 500 products tested. The products included sunscreens, moisturizers, lip balms and makeup.
What lands a sunscreen product on the EWG’s “not recommended list” and why?
There are basically three reasons that sunscreens are considered unsafe by EWG. First, a sunscreen may make exaggerated claims of effectiveness when it comes to protection from the sun. The sunscreen product may be made in such a way as to make a thorough application difficult. . According to EWG, many sunscreens with SPF (sun protection factor) claims don’t really offer that much protection. The high SPF claims lead to a false sense of security that encourages people to stay out longer, believing that they have protected their skin, when in reality the amount of sun exposure for each individually depends upon a number of factors including the length of exposure, time of day, geographic location, and weather conditions. Additionally it was found that people generally apply about a quarter of the recommended amount, so a sunscreen with 100 SPF may really only offer 25 SPF.
The second area of controversy regarding sunscreens and our health is the use of vitamin A or “retinyl palmitate,” a common sunscreen ingredient that, according to government data and a study completed by the National Toxicology Program, has been linked to accelerated development of “skin tumors and lesions” in mice. “In that year long study, tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent faster in lab animals coated in a vitamin A-laced cream than animals treated with a vitamin-free cream,” the EWG report said.
Based on this research any sunscreens with vitamin A are not recommended by the EWG. Unfortunately other compelling studies and research results has not been formally published and which recently lead senator Charles Schumer to make a public statement pushing for its release, claiming that the FDA is sitting on information vital to the public.
Last but not least, the third factor in not recommending certain sunscreens involves the ingredient oxybenzone, which is a hormone-disrupting chemical that penetrates the skin and gets into the bloodstream. This ingredient has been suggested by scientist to be particularly harmful to children and expectant mothers. According to a research study of oxybenzone at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine it can lead to low birth weight in baby girls.
However, not all scientist agree, Kate Puttgen, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore says “I recommend sunscreens with oxybenzone whole-heartedly. I haven’t seen any data that suggest the miniscule amount of absorption causes any risks.” The American Academy of Dermatology continues to recommend sunscreens with oxybenzone.
Even if you aren’t convinced of the toxicity of oxybenzone there is one thing you should know before you spray your sunscreen. It is a photoallergen, becoming an allergen when exposed to sunlight, causing rashes, hives and other skin irritations. This effect occurs in about 20 to 30% of people (Rodriguez et al., 2006), so if you or your child has sensitive skin, it’s simple, don’t use it. An alternative is the use of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
The EWG offers a “Find Your Sunscreen Guide.” The EWG scale is 0-2 recommended, 3-6 caution, and 7-10 avoid. Take a minute to see if your favorite sunscreen is on their recommended list. Don’t depend solely on the list to help you make your decisions, be sure to read the label and ingredients as well as SPF, UVA and UVB protection information on your sunscreen products.
However, these recommendations and concerns should come as no surprise to consumers, in 2007 the EWG reported that many of the 700 sunscreen products tested against the so called “safe ingredients” used in sunscreens were harmful to both our health and the environment. FDA guidelines regarding sunscreens and their ingredients haven’t been updated since 1979.
Why trust the EWG Ratings and Recommendations regarding sunscreen products?
The Environmental Working group is most reliable and largest source available to the public. It is also an independent, non-profit organization whose mission is to “use the power of information to protect human health and the environment.” The EWG does not endorse any particular product or brand but simply rates according to their testing system.
Because the FDA does not have the authority to approve the products or ingredients used in personal care products, except for color additives, companies can put virtually any ingredient into their products thus exposing you and your family to known toxic chemicals. Unfortunately there are only a few ingredients which are prohibited by the FDA.
In light of this coverage, the Federal and Drug Administration now claims to be working on sunscreen regulations that have not been updated for over 20 years, that may be released in October 2010, but they’ll likely give manufacturers some period of time to comply.
No one, including the EWG, is recommending not using sunscreens. This isn’t safe either. So what can you do?
-Wear hats, sunglasses and protective clothing.
-Avoid midday hours in the sun; instead, enjoy outdoors in the mornings or evenings, especially at the beach.
-Read labels on sunscreens carefully. As of right now, vitamin A and oxybenzone are of concern.
-Be sure to apply the recommended amount of sunscreens and reapply at the recommended times.
EWG Sunscreen Guide
Study: Many Sunscreens May Be Accelerating Cancer
Making Cosmetics Safe