Hooray. At long last questions are being raised about the safety of slathering masses of sunscreen chemicals onto fragile skin and heating them up under a baking sun. (See the end of the article for a list of safe sunscreen products.)
For several decades now, sunscreen manufacturers have peddled their creams and lotions with the pledge that they will protect skin from the sun and from sunburn. The subtext has been that in protecting skin from UV rays and from burns, they also protect against skin cancer.
Yet there have been voices raised during those years, asking whether rubbing a blend of industrially produced and treated chemicals into the skin and then frying them is really a healthy practice. As we’ve been repeatedly told in recent years, skin cancers are on the increase.
In England, for example, the incidence of malignant melanoma rose by a huge 46% per cent over the last seven years. In one county alone, Yorkshire, hospitals saw 80% more cases of malignant melanoma in 2004 than in 1997. One line of argument is that skin cancers are increasing because people are just ignoring advice about the dangers of sunbathing and are not avoiding the sun and not using sunscreen.
That argument looks pretty thin however when you look at sunscreen sales. The total volume of “sun care” sales in 2009 was $798 million as reported by Nielsen. That figure omits all cosmetics which contain sun protection factors (SPF) and masses of those are now sold as well as traditional sun lotions and creams.
So if we’re using more sunsceeen than ever before, and developing more skin cancer, what’s going on?
Part of the explanation may lie in sunscreens themselves. The Week magazine reported (May 2010 ) that the non-profit organisation, Environmental Working Group, found that not only do many sunscreen products fail to protect against sunburn but 42% of those tested “may actually contribute to the growth of skin cancer”.
One problem with sunscreen products is that, if used zealously, they can block natural production of vitamin D in the body. Vitamin D is now said to offer protection against a number of cancers. A professor at Boston Medical School recently said, for example, that “if women obtained adequate levels of vitamin D there would be 25% fewer deaths from breast cancer.”
Another problem with sunscreens is that they generally contain vitamin A. Manufacturers add this for its supposed ‘anti-aging’ properties. EWG argue, though, that the vitamin A derivative retinyl palmitate actively spurs the growth of cancerous cells. Their studies found that laboratory mice that were tested suffered up to a 21% percent increase in the growth of cancer cells on their skin.
Other chemicals poured into sunscreen products are equally dubious. They include:TEA, DEA, MEA (tri-, di- and mono- ethaloamines). These chemicals can cause liver and kidney cancer. (They are also hurt the eyes, provoking allergic reactions.)
Formaldehyde is carcinogenic.
Diazolidinyl and imidazolidinyl urea (Germall 115) can release formaldehyde.
Most of the FD&C color pigments used are carcinogenic. They also contain heavy metals capable of causing skin reactions.
Several nitrosating agents have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. They include:
2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol; Cocoyl sarcosine;Hydrolysed animal protein;Lauryl sarcosine;Quaternium-7, 15, 31, 60, et al;Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS); sodium laureth sulfate (SLES); ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES);Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate.
Lanolin is often added and can bring with it the pesticides used on the sheep from which it’s derived.
Mineral oil can be contaminated with cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
And lastly the potentially “hormone-disrupting compound” oxybenzone.
It’s not surprising that all these chemicals can constitute a toxic assault on our skin even before they’re heated by the sun’s rays. And we are among the first few generations to rub these chemicals into our skin.
The Food and Drug Administration is now preparing to issue new safety and labeling guidelines for sunscreens and the first federally regulated products should be on sale in 2012.
Chances are those approved products will continue to be stuffed with chemicals however – and there’s no need whatever to put them on your body. Moderate sunbathing is good for us. It lifts spirits and raises vitamin D levels. Staying out of hot sun, sitting in the shade, covering up with hats or loose clothing is all that’s needed to avoid sun damage to the skin.
If you’re still inclined to buy and use sunscreens though, click here for EWG’s list of safe products.