Green Q & A: Suncreen Safety

Posted by Trish Riley, June 25, 2009

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Dear Trish,

What is the deal with sunscreen? We’ve been told for years to slather on the highest SPF we can find, and now we’re hearing that might not be such a great idea. Should we use sunscreen or not?

Sunscreens are complex blends of mostly synthetic chemicals, some of which have slipped past the safety test since we don’t require testing on cosmetics – they’re traditionally only investigated when a problem surfaces. Tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals have migrated into our vast array of cosmetic products. Because of our constant exposure to these chemicals, hundreds have been identified in the blood of newborns as well as the rest of us, and they are also in our water supplies. While most have not been tested or confirmed as either safe or dangerous, some are now emerging as potentially dangerous through animal studies. A common ingredient in sunscreen, oxybenzone, is among these. Identified as carcinogenic to rats and an endocrine disrupter, which can wreak havoc with our hormonal systems, oxybenzone was found to be  present in 97 percent of  participants in a 2008 study. It seems wise to avoid products with this ingredient as we await possible future regulation of this chemical.

Some minerals provide natural protection from the sun’s rays. The old standbys zinc and titanium dioxide both create a shield to protect your skin from damaging UV rays of sunlight. Recent developments are grinding these minerals into nanoparticles to avoid the white sheen that’s recognized in zinc creams, but these nanoparticles are also controversial and questionable because such tiny particles can pass through the skin and blood barriers of the body and have as yet unknown impact on our internal organs.

Bottom line, the best advice is to use natural sunscreens made with non-nano zinc and titanium dioxide when you’re planning to be in the sun during the midday. You can also shield yourself from overexposure with hats and clothing. It is important to protect your skin from too much sun, though some sun exposure is important to ensure a supply of Vitamin D to your body.

Here are a few articles detailing the concerns about oxybenzone, as well as a list of the safest products for sun protection:

A 2008 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that 97% of Americans are contaminated with a widely-used sunscreen ingredient called oxybenzone that has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage.

A companion study published just one day earlier revealed that this chemical is linked to low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy. Oxybenzone is also a penetration enhancer, a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin.

Although oxybenzone is most common in sunscreen, companies also use the chemical in at least 567 other personal care products.

via Caving to Industry, FDA Refuses to Ban Widely Used Carcinogen Found in Sunscreen & Other Personal Care Products, Rachel’s Democracy & Health News, March 25, 2008.

In a disturbing investigation of 952 name-brand sunscreens, the Environmental Working Group found that 4 out of 5 sunscreen products offer inadequate protection from the sun, or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns. In a recent Australian study, adverse reactions from sunscreen ingredients occurred in as many as 19% of individuals. There is also a growing awareness that sunscreen ingredients like the parabens and Benzophenone may function like human estrogens and actually disrupt the normal hormonal functioning of the body.

Other ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide… are being decreased to nanoparticles to reduce visibility on the skin. Although they have been cleared by the USFDA and US National Toxicology Program, these miniscule particles are making scientists worry, says a recent survey done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published in Nature Nanotechnology (November 2007)…  They agree there haven’t been enough studies to be sure of the safety of using nanotechnology in personal care products.

via How Safe Is Sunscreen? Green Muze, June 2009.

Choose your sunscreen from among these rated Top 10 by the Environmental Working Group.

Stay safe in the sun!