At the start of summer, just as many of us were beginning to give our little ones a daily sunscreen slather, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) came out with a report saying that some of the most widely-used chemicals in sunblock could be harmful to our health.
But equally unsettling is that the science implicating these ingredients is not new. To the dismay of many consumers, there seems to have been an unnecessarily long lag time between research and public awareness. Meanwhile, it’s come into focus that no one is regulating what goes into sunscreens – or what is printed on the bottles we pick off the shelves.
Here’s a breakdown of the current understanding of sunscreen chemicals, their effects, the controversy, and what it all means to parents:
Oxybenzone versus titanium dioxide and zinc oxide
One of the chemicals under closest scrutiny is oxybenzone, used in over half the sunscreens on the market. It is absorbed through the skin, and is thought to disrupt hormone function and cause allergic reactions. In particular, scientists suggest we keep it away from kids and pregnant women.
This is why parents are choosing creams with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which physically block and diffract the sun’s rays (but also leave a white film on the skin). It has been suggested that titanium and zinc might also be toxic if absorbed into the bloodstream, but studies so far indicate that they do not penetrate the skin.
Vitamin A or retinyl palmitate
Vitamin A, which is in approximately half of sunscreens (usually in the form of retinol or retinyl palmitate), has long been used as an anti-aging ingredient in many different kinds of creams. The problem: According to the EWG, the FDA has data indicating that vitamin A is potentially photocarcinogenic (tumor-promoting when used in sun). In experiments by the National Toxicology Program, mice were covered with the substance and exposed to sunrays. Compared to the control mice, the rodents wearing vitamin A developed tumors 21 percent sooner.
Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide: Less likely to penetrate the skin
Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX: Safe European ingredients not available in U.S., despite offering significantly better UVA protection
Bad Sunscreen Ingredients
Vitamin A (retinol or retinyl palmitate): Potentially carcinogenic in the sun
Oxybenzone penetrates skin, can cause allergic reactions and disrupt hormones
Anger at the FDA
The vitamin A data has not been formally published yet, which recently lead senator Charles Schumer to make a public statement pushing for its release, saying the FDA is sitting on information vital to the public. Meanwhile, many are peeved that the FDA hasn’t updated or finalized sunscreen guidelines since 1979, while European sunblocks use safer and more effective ingredients (see Sidebar) that are not yet approved in this country.
The lack of FDA control means that no one is watching sunscreen marketing claims. “All-day protection,” “water-proof” and even SPF can’t really be trusted. And both the EWG and the American Academy of Dermatology warns that high SPF claims can be misleading. When we see a whopping “80” protection factor, we assume it’s the ultimate in safety. But it may not cover both UVA and UVB rays, the block strength doesn’t mean much after 30, and if you don’t reapply frequently, you’re still open to damaging rays.
It’s frustrating because the gap between scientific knowledge and public safety does seem too wide. For example, the EWG sites research published in journals like Lancet and the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology as far back as the late 1990s raising concerns about oxybenzone. But in this country it is still being used as the major active ingredient in sunscreens “especially for babies.”
What it means for parents
Of the 500 products EWG examined, only 39 were deemed safe and effective. Happily, my son’s Badger sunscreen – with zinc oxide – is on the EWG’s top-rated list.
The bottom line for parents is that physical barrier creams like zinc and titanium are the best bet given the current data. We can skip the bottles with multiple chemical names (especially when they have oxybenzone) and save retinol for nighttime only. Make sure to reapply every few hours, because sunburns and skin cancer protection are not the same – even though one layer might protect against a burn (caused by UVB rays), more may be needed to shield from harmful UVA rays.
My family will still be on the beach this summer, but my son will be covered in white, and I’ll be the one under the big umbrella wearing a wide-brimmed hat.