Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sunscreen. Is it really Safe for You? Guest Writer Jessie

Sunscreen.  For most health-conscious people it’s a no-brainer; it helps prevent painful sunburns and ultimately skin cancer.  But is it really the health boon that we all think it is? Or is there more to the story?  Recent studies suggest that many sunscreens are not all their cracked up to be and sometimes may be doing more harm than good!

I started reading about sunscreens a couple years ago when one of my favorite health advocacy groups, the Environmental Working Group (a non-profit organization that uses the power of public information to protect public health and the environment) published their annual guide to sunscreen.  Since then, I have seen the same themes repeated again and again on other health forums. I honestly believe that knowledge is power, so today I am going to share the results of some of my reading with you.

More melanoma in sunscreen users?!?  This is one of the first items that I read and I was almost ready to dismiss it as total malarkey, but when you delve into the details, it really does make sense.  According to the Environmental Working Group, “some researchers have detected an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users.”   They point to a couple possible reasons for this and the first may be our own overconfidence and overreliance on sunscreen.  Unfortunately, this overconfidence isn’t solely a product of our own psyche; sunscreen manufactures have largely contributed to this by consistently overstating the efficacy of their products, because of this issue “in June 2011 the FDA announced new rules on labeling and effectiveness testing for sunscreens. They will ban the use of misleading claims like “sunblock,” “waterproof” and “sweatproof” and define which sunscreens can claim “broad spectrum” protection.”

Many of us tend to believe that a good sunscreen is fully protecting us from the sun UVA and UVB radiation, but that is not the case.  Many sunscreens work well against UVB radiation (which causes visible burns) but not against UVA radiation, which does not cause visible sunburns but still damages the skin and is a huge contributor to the more dangerous forms of skin cancer.   So while we avoid burns and feel “safer” we are still exposing ourselves to more and more harmful radiation. The misleading claims by sunscreen manufacturers have contributed consumer overconfidence in the protective factors of sunscreen, causing people to stay in the sun too long and stay outside during peak sun hours.  

Unfortunately, overconfidence is not the only unintended health consequence of sunscreen; according to the FDA recent studies have found that vitamin A, a common additive to sunscreen and other moisturizing lotions “may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight”.  Vitamin A is an additive in 25 percent of all sunscreens and while it is a useful addition to overnight creams, it should not be worn in direct sunlight.

In addition to vitamin A, there are other chemicals used in sunscreen that may do more harm than good.  While most sunscreens work to prevent visible sunburn, but do not prevent free-radical damage caused by UVB radiation (addressed above) some sunscreen chemicals actually generate (additional) free radicals that damage DNA and skin cells, accelerate skin aging and cause skin cancer."  Also, the chemical oxybenzone, a common active ingredient in sunscreen is “a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin and contaminates the body.”

This is all pretty scary stuff!  So, what do you do now? As for me, I have moved away from a chemical SPF in my daily moisturizer and changed to a mineral foundation that contains titanium, a natural mineral barrier to the sun.  Mineral barriers such as titanium and zinc do not penetrate into the body to cause hormone disruptions or additional free radical damage.  I also am not so quick to slather on a layer of sunscreen when I am only going to be outside for 30 minutes or so.  Instead, I try to do my outside tasks in the morning or evening rather than peak sun hours.  I use that half an hour in the sun to get my daily dose of vitamin D, which “strengthens bones and the immune system, reduces the risk of various cancers (including breast, colon, kidney and ovarian cancers) and regulates at least a thousand different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body.”

Finally, if I am going to be outside for more than 30 minutes, or at peak sun hours, I do use sunscreen.  I just take a little more time and consideration in what I purchase.  I avoid oxybenzone and vitamin A and instead look for mineral sunscreens containing zinc or titanium.  You can find a list of safer and more effective sunscreens on EWG’s website.  My advice is once you find one you like that is readily available in your area, stick with it and don’t be enticed by the next two-for-one sale!

I am by no means a scientist or an expert on sunscreen; this is only information that I have gleaned from reading the conclusions of studies conducted by the actual experts.  For more information on sunscreen safety and efficacy, please visit the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 guide to sunscreens.   (They also have a TON of other amazing resources related to food and cosmetic safety among other things at

Jessie, in addition to being suckered into writing articles for me, makes her own soap and shampoo and educates others in making smart choices when choosing cosmetics, sunscreen and cleaning products.  Her enthusiasm for being a vegetarian, getting involved for community groups and making change have help many, especially sneaky cats.
Jessie, on far left, after running her first and hopefully not last half marathon


Lisa Carter said...

Thanks for this post! I have very fair skin and burn much more easily as the years go by -- it can take as little as 10 or 15 minutes of unintended sun exposure for my face to burn. My father and sister also both had skin cancer. As a result, I wear sunscreen all the time. I try to be careful about what I buy but now will go to the EWG site you linked to to see what's the best product to use. I appreciate you gathering all this information and posting it here!

Kathryn Lance said...

This is interesting, but it makes sense that those who use sunscreen are out in the sun more. I live in Tucson and I'm very active outdoors all year round. I'm also fair-skinned, so couldn't function w/o sunscreen. I also cover up--hat, long sleeves, sun gloves. I keep getting pre-cancers on my face, but so far nothing worse. KL

Giorgio said...

I've never thought natural mineral barrier to the sun.
Excellent post, Christina! Thanks for sharing the results of your readings with us!