Sunscreen Safety Concerns

Merely Me Health Guide
  • There has been a lot of news lately about sunscreens and their effectiveness in preventing sun damage and skin cancer. In a previous post we outlined the changes that the FDA will enact by the summer of 2012 in regulating the manufacturer’s labels on sunscreen products. Some of these changes include banning the terms “waterproof”, “sweatproof”, and “sunblock.” In addition, sunscreens may only be labeled as “broad spectrum” if they provide protection against both UVA and UVB radiation. Skin cancer experts applaud these changes as a step towards improved protection for consumers who wish to prevent skin cancer. Yet there are some organizations who say that these new regulations are not enough. The Environmental Working Group, for example, has claimed that some sunscreens are not only ineffective but may contain harmful ingredients. In this post we are going to take a look at the current controversy over sunscreens and how this may affect you.

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    If you take a look at the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website you are going to find some surprising claims about sunscreens according to their research. Here are just some of their conclusions:


    • The Environmental Working Group (EWG) claims that sunscreens should not be the first line of defense against skin cancer. They cite The International Agency for Research on Cancer as recommending clothing, hats and shade as primary barriers to UV radiation.


    • EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens with vitamin A (look for “retinyl palmitate” or “retinol” on the label) due to a preliminary FDA study where they found that this ingredient when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.


    • EWG recommends mineral sunscreens as they have the best safety profile of all the sunscreen choices on the market. They warn, however, to avoid mineral-based sunscreens sold as powders or sprays due to the potential danger of inhaling nanoparticles.


    • EWG makes the claim that: “Both UV radiation and many common sunscreen ingredients generate free radicals that damage DNA and skin cells, accelerate skin aging and cause skin cancer.” In addition they discuss the possible skin damaging effects of certain sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone, which they say can trigger allergic reactions and is a potential hormone disruptor. EWG warns that this ingredient can be particularly harmful to children.


    • EWG cites concerns over the growing epidemic of people who are Vitamin D deficient. They claim that increased sunscreen use combined with too little outdoor time is contributing to this vitamin deficiency. They discuss the controversy among experts as to how to best obtain our Vitamin D through sun exposure or through supplements. In a previous post I presented a patient’s point of view on this Vitamin D dilemma.


    You will also find recommendations on the EWG site for the best sunscreens.  EWG defines the “best” sunscreens as:


    • They all contain the minerals zinc or titanium.


    • None contain the ingredients oxybenzone or Vitamin A.


    • None are sprays or powders.


    EWG also posts its version of the “Hall of Shame” where they identify sunscreen products they deem to be either ineffective or unsafe. Many of these products are marketed for use on either babies or children.


    Despite all their cautionary advice, EWG states that giving up on sunscreens is not the answer and that most public health agencies recommend the use of sunscreen. They advise that your first line of defense against the sun’s harmful rays should be seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and avoiding the sun during peak hours.

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    The Skin Cancer Foundation has recently published a rebuttal to some of EWG’s claims especially since they openly criticized The Skin Cancer Foundation in some of their reports.


    Here are some of the highlights to The Skin Cancer Foundation’s response to The Environmental Working Group’s 2010 report:


    • The Skin Cancer Foundation’s scientists have found no scientific evidence that retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) is a photocarcinogen in humans and have found no evidence of an association between sunscreens using this ingredient and an increased risk of skin cancer. Their experts say that dermatologists have used retinyl palmitate to treat acne and wrinkles for many years.


    • The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that sunscreen products are safe and effective if used as directed.


    • They recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher as part of your sun protection in addition to seeking shade and wearing sun protective clothing.


    • The Skin Cancer Foundation states that the ingredient, oxybenzone, has not been shown to cause harm in people. Their experts warn that we cannot necessarily draw conclusions from animal studies to humans.


    Confused yet? As a consumer and patient, I am concerned about these conflicting reports on sunscreen products. In the end we patients are the ones to live with our choices. It is wise to be an informed consumer but also be cautious about claims which may be unproven. If you have questions or concerns about which sunscreen products are best for you, you may wish to consult with your doctor or dermatologist.


    In a future post we are going to call upon the expert advice of Dr. Larry Green, a practicing dermatologist, to shed some light on the current sunscreen controversy.


    We would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What do you make of the Environmental Working Groups’s concerns over the safety and effectiveness of sunscreens? Are you confident that your sunscreen is helping to protect you from sun damage including skin cancer? Share your opinions with us. We are listening.


    Here are some additional resources you may wish to explore related to this topic:


    Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website


    The Skin Cancer Foundation

  • American Cancer Society Sun Safety Tips

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    Sunscreen Label Changes

Published On: June 27, 2011