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Sunscreen Unsafe? Definitely. Here’s how to pick the right one.

Most sunblocks contain dangerous chemicals; heres how to pick the right one

By Heather Turgeon |

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.

Good Sunscreen Ingredients

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.

 

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About Heather Turgeon

heatherturgeon

Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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10 thoughts on “Sunscreen Unsafe? Definitely. Here’s how to pick the right one.

  1. Graeme Tamke says:

    I think we overdue it with sunscreen because it blocks vitamin D production. Check out this story. Remember that we evolved as species being exposed to sunlight.

    Broken bones for kids!
    http://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Kids-and-adults-found-lacking-in-vitamin-D-534942.php

    Could be a lot more to this story than we think. Sunscreen companies are not legally permitted to promote that their products prevent skin cancer. Organizations like The Skin Cancer Foundation were created to do it for them. This one is lead by a dermatologist named Dr. Perry Robbins.

    Check out this link to Skin Cancer Foundations “Corporate Council”. No coincidence that sunscreen companies are heavily involved in directing organizations that scare us out of the sun!

    http://www.skincancer.org/Corporate-Council.html

    As for our sun phobia of the last 20 years, here could be one possible explanation of why we think the sun is bad.

    Melanoma on the rise or just diagnosis?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/health/29mela.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

  2. Beth says:

    Graeme – Yes, we “evolved as a species being exposed to sunlight,” but things have changed. First, the ozone layer protecting us from harmful rays has thinned. Second, we how are inside so much that we only get intermittent exposure, which is more dangerous skin cancer-wise than if you get every day exposure. I agree that some degree of exposure is good for Vit D, but let’s not go overboard. Moderation!
    To address the chemicals in sunscreen problem, my kids wear wetsuit type bathing suits from Coolibar that have UPF protection — we only need to put sunscreen on their faces hands and feet when they go swimming. They love it and we love it.

  3. ad2think says:

    I read the EWG’s list, and bought Badger sunscreen with Zinc Oxide for the first time for the July 4th weekend. We lathered it on our whole family, and we ALL got completely sunburned! We even reapplied after swimming. It’s the first time this summer we burned, and I’m disappointed in the Badger product. In fact, the four of us used the entire small bottle (at $16 a pop) over two days. Now I’m not sure what to buy.

  4. sparkyd says:

    Just wanted to counter the comment about Badger sunscreen – we’ve been using it for 3 years and none of us has ever gotten a sunburn from using it. It is like any other product though – if you are out all day on a high UV index day you have to reapply it every couple of hours. If you don’t you WILL burn. We were out all day at a water park this week on a day when you could burn in 10 minutes with no sunscreen. No burns here. As Beth commented, if you use shirts or suits with UPF protection (we use shirts rated at 40 or 50), that cuts down on how much sunscreen you actually go through in a day and makes the job faster.

  5. Frustrated says:

    I have to tell you, I find these stories so frustrating. It’s just another damned if you do, damned if you don’t story. And to make matters even more frustrating, my son has a serious allergy to aloe (it’s in EVERYTHING) and I can only select from the already ridiculously small pool of sunscreens out there that don’t have aloe. Now what?

  6. kittenpie says:

    Ombrelle sunscreen with Mexoryl SX is available in Canada, so if you’re close to the border, you can grab yourself a bottle with one of those safe Euro ingredients that the FDA is so wary of!

  7. Paula Bernstein Orkin says:

    I’m really disgusted to learn that Kiss My Face sunscreen, which I buy at my food co-op, is on the list of sunscreens to avoid. Sometimes it does seem as is fverything you think is good for you is really bad! So all this time, I thought I was doing the right thing and now I find, I may have been causing harm to my kids. Very upsetting. I wish there were more industry regulations regarding chemicals in products for kids.

  8. Nina says:

    You can find sunscreen with Mexoryl now on Amazon. Roche-posay carries it. I have lots of skin cancer on both sides of my family and have been using L’oreal with Mexoryl (which I have my husband’s parents bring me from Europe) for 5 years. I’ve used it on my kids, too, and they have never gotten sunburned. All the dermatologists I know say it’s the best product available– do whatever you can to find it if you really want the best sun protection out there. It’s the stupidest thing in the world that the FDA still hasn’t approved it. Why? it’s patented by two French companies and I assume the US sunscreen companies have been successful in keeping it out. Infuriating.

  9. beachkid says:

    After an extensive search for the most effective and best sunscreen for my family, Ive settled on Glacier Creme: http://www.glaciercreme.com. Its physical sunscreen, with zinc oxide which is the most effective at blocking UVA as well as UVB rays. The sunscreen goes on transparent, absorbs quickly and isnt greasy. Its great for sensitive skin–it has NO chemical filters, NO parabens, NO retinyl palmitate. And the website (www.glaciercreme.com) is pretty sexy too

  10. baconator says:

    @Beth, the thinning of the ozone layer only affects you if you live in a place like Australia; the amount of UV reaching the US has not changed since we started measuring it in the middle of the last century. Intermittent sun exposure is an issue, in that regular exposure results in the skin to naturally thicken and protect itself. This is another reason to be sparing with sunscreen and only use it when absolutely necessary; otherwise you are allowing the UV to penetrate deeper without your evolutionary response to protect.

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