Some Summer Advice: Know Your Sunscreen

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Sunscreen is one of the drags of motherhood– you pray, like changing the diaper, that just maybe your husband will volunteer for the task. However, sunscreen is a necessary drag of life… that is if you don’t want skin cancer or wrinkles. So for those of us who lay in the sun, we do it with guilt and when we lather our kids, we do it with dread— a task for me that always used to include a lot of chasing, pinning down and threatening to get the lotion in their eyes if they dare moved.

Fortunately, my kids are now old enough to be responsible for their own lotion, but after years of forcing the daily slathering, I am now thinking twice. I have gone from “use generously and frequently” to…”READ THE LABEL!” Does it contain oxybenzone? Is it broad spectrum? Vitamin A? Does it contain nano-particles? What is the spf? A misleading or bogus 50+?

Or how about au natural…a little Vitamin D anyone?

There is more to consider in choosing a sunscreen than we ever realized and many truths that are…questionable. Recently I stumbled upon an article by the Environmental Working Group and the EWG’s 2013 Sunscreen Guide that gave me pause. I thought it worth sharing as well as some additional research.

Here are the highlights:

What to Avoid

  1.  Oxybenzone is a hormone disrupting chemical that penetrates the skin and enters the blood stream. It is the most widely used chemical in sunscreens. Although the Academy of American Dermatology says it is safe, the Environmental Working Group and other toxicologists disagree. They claim no significant studies of the chemical have been done since the 1970s and according to the CDC, oxybenzone is found in 97% of all Americans! The EWG makes it clear to avoid all sunscreens with Oxybenzone. It is especially not recommended for children!! No need to add another synthetic estrogen into their vulnerable bodies!! Just think of slathering all that lotion all over the body, our biggest organ, multiple times a day, every day. When chemicals readily absorb into the skin, slathering is no different than eating! It actually is worse as chemicals go right into the blood stream. My rule of thumb–if you can avoid anything that is the least bit controversial, then do. No need to wait for the inevitable, “researchers are now confirming…,” especially when there are safer options like mineral sunscreens with non-nano particle zinc or titanium. Both do not penetrate the skin. The only serious harm is that unfortunate white stain on clothes and furniture! (FYI– make sure to check all your cosmetics for oxybenzone, not just your sunscreens!)
  2. Octinoxate—  reportedly the most widely used UVB-blocking agent in the skin care industry because it is less irritating than other sunscreen ingredients. According to the EWG, Octinoxate is a moderate hazard, primarily because it can lead to developmental and reproductive toxicity through enhanced skin absorption. It can produce estrogen-like effects and should not be used by pregnant women and children. However, all developmental reactions were in rats and mice, and were the result of high concentrations not seen in any formulas in skin care products. So this is one to watch, but even if it is not proven to be an endocrine disruptor, octinaxate only protects against UVB rays not UVA. It also breaks down and becomes less effective when exposed to the sun which is why it is always combined with other ingredients. How odd– why then do they use it?!! Finally, the other concern with this ingredient and other chemical sunscreens is that they may increase exposure to skin-damaging free radicals. That means that this ingredient could be increasing the damage to skin from UV rays.
  3.  Vitamin A or Retinyl Palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight. This one threw me! On a recent very sunny ski trip, I thought I was being so smart using Burt’s Bee’s Carrot Night Cream as my sun protection. Carrots have a natural spf of 40. It worked, but then I learned the truth about vitamin A… As for other options direct from nature, I am told coconut oil has an spf of 10. Although it is hard to believe an oil can be a sunscreen, trust me, it works! I slathered myself in coconut oil, went to the beach and did not burn!! I have now used it so many times with out burning, that I now ONLY use organic coconut oil!!!
  4. Avoid sprays, wipes and powders–Aerosols have so many more chemicals. I watch kids spray their bodies. How much is going on the body and how much in the lungs? As for powders, again, be wary of nano-particles. They too get into the lungs, as well as absorb into the skin and can be harmful. As for sunscreen wipes, it is not clear how much is actually transferred to the skin.
  5. High SPFs–there is no proof higher SPFs work any better. Watch out for false advertising.
  6.  PABA–can cause allergic dermatitis, photosensitivity and has carcinogenic potential.
  7. Formulated for Babies–Just because a sunscreen is marketed for babies and sensitive skin, does not mean the formulation is any different than all the adult sunscreens. The ingredients are often the same. Do a little comparison shopping!

The Sunscreen Checklist

  1. Buy mineral based sunscreens with zinc and titanium dioxide. They effectively block UVA and UVB rays and do not absorb into the skin. Mexoryl is also effective although not widely available in the US. However, please make sure the ingredients say “non-nanoparticle” when describing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. And this rule applies to purportedly ‘natural’ brands as well. The key is you do not want the skin to absorb the titanium dioxide or zinc. To understand the health hazards of nanoparticles, link here. Yes, it may look a little chalky, but is that really so bad?
  2. If you prefer a non-mineral sunscreens,  Avobenzone 3% is a chemical based option. It similarly does not penetrate the skin. EWG gives it a 3 rating. However, why go for something rated a 3 when non-nano zinc and titanium score 0-2. Also Avobenzone  is still an endocrine disruptor–meaning it converts to estrogen and can effect the development/function of the body, but less worrisome than oxybenzone as it does not absorb into the skin.
  3. Choose broad spectrum sunscreens that block UVA and UVB light. They will usually say “broad spectrum” on the packaging.
  4. Choose lotions rather than sprays or powders.
  5. Allow yourself some time in the sun so that your body can absorb Vitamin D. Vitamin D is said to be the best prevention against cancer and 20 minutes in the sun without sunscreen can translate to 20,000 IUs of Vitamin D that the body then stores. My family and I supplement with Vitamin D everyday. I buy Premier Research Labs Liquid Vitamin D  and my family gets a drop or two in their water every morning. However, supplementation doesn’t compare to the benefits of the sun’s rays. Don’t be foolish and go out in the heat of the day, but early morning and late afternoon sun…it is ok to indulge. Also, the psychological “pick me up” affect of the sun is an additional benefit of dosing up on natural Vitamin D!!
  6. Consult the just released Environmental Working Group’s 2013 Sunscreen Guide. There are 184 different sunscreens that meet EWG’s stringent safety criteria. They each have a 0-2 rating. However, you would be surprised at how many popular brands fall into the non-safe category!
  7. Skip sunscreens and try ORGANIC COCONUT OIL!!! It works and is cheap!

Some Safe Brands as per EWG with an Excellent 0-2 Rating

Even when choosing these brands on the EWG list, still read labels! Make sure they are mineral sunscreens and meet all the other criteria listed above. Also, do not assume that all sunscreens manufactured by a specific brand are equal. Shop for the individual product. Many of the brands listed below may only have one sunscreen on the EWG list. Badger for example has 13. The clear winner! However, Alba Botanical has only 1 that made the list.

  • Badger (Just stocked up at Fairway! FYI– Badger is half the price of California Baby!)
  • Blue Lizard
  • Alba Botanical
  • Aubrey Organics
  • California Baby
  • Nature’s Gate
  • BabyGanics
  • MD Solar Sciences
  • Vanicream
  • UV Natural

Many more listed here.


Here are 9 surprising truths as listed on the EWG site

1. There’s no consensus that sunscreens prevent skin cancer.

The FDA’s 2011 sunscreen rules allow sunscreen makers to advertise that using their products can decrease the risk of skin cancer and sun-related skin aging.  But a wide range of public health agencies – including the FDA – have found very little evidence that sunscreen prevents most types of skin cancer. In reviewing the evidence, the FDA said that the available clinical studies “do not demonstrate that even [broad spectrum products with SPF greater than 15] alone reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.”   The agency also said that it is “not aware of any studies examining the effect of sunscreen use on the development of melanoma.”  The International Agency for Research on Cancer recommends clothing, hats and shade as primary barriers to UV radiation. It says that “sunscreens should not be the first choice for skin cancer prevention and should not be used as the sole agent for protection against the sun” (IARC 2001a). Read more.

2. There’s some evidence that sunscreens might increase the risk of the deadliest form of skin cancer for some people.

Some researchers have detected an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users. No one knows the cause, but scientists speculate that sunscreen users stay out in the sun longer and absorb more radiation overall, or that free radicals released as sunscreen chemicals break down in sunlight may play a role. One other hunch: Inferior sunscreens with poor UVA protection that have dominated the market for 30 years may have led to this surprising outcome. All major public health agencies still advise using sunscreens, but they also stress the importance of shade, clothing and timing. Read more.

3. There are dozens of high-SPF products — but no proof they’re better.

The FDA has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values higher than “50+.” The agency has written that values higher than 50 would be “misleading to the consumer,” given that there is an “absence of data demonstrating additional clinical benefit” (FDA 2011a), and that “there is no assurance that the specific values themselves are in fact truthful…” (FDA 2007). Scientists are also worried that high-SPF products may tempt people to stay in the sun too long, suppressing sunburns (a late, key warning of overexposure) while upping the risks of other kinds of skin damage.

Flouting the FDA’s proposed regulation, companies continue to sell high-SPF offerings in 2012. More than 1 in 7 products now lists SPF values higher than 50+, compared to only 1 in 8 in 2009, according to EWG’s analysis of more than 800 beach and sport sunscreens. Among the worst offenders are Walgreens and Aveeno brands.  These manufacturers boast SPF values greater than 50+ on more than 40 percent of their sunscreens Read more.

4. Too little sun might be harmful, reducing the body’s vitamin D levels.

Sunshine serves a critical function in the body that sunscreen appears to inhibit — producing vitamin D. The main source of vitamin D in the body is sunshine, and the compound is enormously important to health – it 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 (Mead 2008). About one-fourth of Americans have borderline low levels of vitamin D, and 8 percent have a serious deficiency (CDC 2012). Particular groups are at the highest risk – breast-fed infants, people with darker skin and people who have limited sun exposure (NIH 2012).

Some people can make enough vitamin D from 10 to 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure several times a week. But many others cannot. The right amount depends on the individual’s age, skin tone, the intensity of sunlight,  time outdoors and skin cancer risk. Check with your doctor to see if you should get a vitamin D test or if you should take seasonal or year-round supplements. Read More

5. The common sunscreen ingredient vitamin A may speed development of cancer.

Recently available data from an FDA study indicate that a form of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight (NTP 2009). This evidence is troubling, because the sunscreen industry adds vitamin A to 25 percent of all sunscreens.

The industry puts vitamin A in its formulations because it is an anti-oxidant that slows skin aging. That may be true for lotions and night creams used indoors, but FDA recently conducted a study of vitamin A’s photocarcinogenic properties – the possibility that it can promote cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight. Scientists have known for some time that vitamin A can spur excess skin growth (hyperplasia) and that in sunlight it can form free radicals that damage DNA.

In the FDA’s one-year study, tumors and lesions developed sooner in lab animals coated in a vitamin A-laced cream than animals treated with a vitamin-free cream. Both groups were exposed to the equivalent of just nine minutes of maximum intensity sunlight each day.

It’s an ironic twist for an industry already battling studies that have questioned whether their products protect against skin cancer. The FDA data are preliminary, but if they hold up in the final assessment, sunscreen makers have a big problem. In the meantime, EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens with vitamin A (look for “retinyl palmitate” or “retinol” on the label). Read more.

6. Free radicals and other skin-damaging byproducts of sunscreens.

Both UV radiation and many common sunscreen ingredients generate free radicals that damage DNA and skin cells, accelerate skin aging and cause skin cancer. An effective sunscreen prevents more damage than it causes, but sunscreens are far better at preventing sunburn than at limiting free radical damage. While typical SPF ratings for sunburn protection range from 15 to 50, equivalent “free radical protection factors” come in at about 2. When consumers apply too little sunscreen or reapply it infrequently – and that’s more common than not – sunscreens can cause more free radical damage than UV rays on bare skin. The FDA could improve sunscreens’ ability to reduce free radical skin damage by strengthening standards for UVA protection. Read more.

7. Pick your sunscreen: nanomaterials or potential hormone disrupters.

The ideal sunscreen would completely block the UV rays that cause sunburn, immune suppression and damaging free radicals. It would remain effective on the skin for several hours and not form harmful ingredients when degraded by UV light. It would smell and feel pleasant so that people use it in the right amount and frequency.

Unsurprisingly, there is currently no sunscreen that satisfies all these criteria. The major choice in the U.S. is between “chemical” sunscreens, which have inferior stability, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body’s hormone systems, and “mineral” sunscreens (zinc and titanium), which often contain micronized- or nanoscale particles of those minerals.

After reviewing the evidence, EWG determined that mineral sunscreens have the best safety profile of today’s choices. They are stable in sunlight and do not appear to penetrate the skin. They offer UVA protection, which is sorely lacking in most of today’s sunscreen products. Mexoryl SX (ecamsule) is another good option, but it’s available in very few formulations. Tinosorb S and M could be great solutions but are not yet available in the United States. For consumers who don’t like mineral products, we recommend sunscreens with avobenzone (3 percent for the best UVA protection) and without the notorious hormone disrupter oxybenzone. Scientists have urged parents to avoid using oxybenzone on children due to penetration and toxicity concerns. Read more.

8. Europe’s better sunscreens.

Sunscreen makers and users in Europe have more options than in the United States. In Europe, sunscreen makers can select from among 27 chemicals for their formulations, compared to 17 in the U.S.  Companies selling in Europe can add any of seven UVA filters to their product, but they have only three available for products marketed in the U.S.  Sunscreen chemicals approved in Europe but not by the FDA provide up to five times more UVA protection; U.S. companies have been waiting five years for FDA approval to use the same compounds. Until the FDA approves these ingredients and lifts restrictions on combining certain active ingredients, strong UVA protection will be scarce in US sunscreens. Read more.

9. The FDA is still not protecting consumers.

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. FDA recently granted a 6 month delay in the implementation of these rules, until mid-December 2012. But even when implemented many gaps will remain.

The standard for UVA protection is weak and will allow nearly 90 percent of sunscreens to use the label “broad spectrum” without any reformulation. A weak standard gives companies no incentive to develop better, more effective sunscreens and masks major differences between products.

The FDA has not yet evaluated the efficacy and safety of new sunscreen ingredients or ingredient combinations.  It has no plans to consider evidence of hormone disruption for sunscreen chemicals. The new rules  still allow sunscreen makers to use ingredients such as vitamin A that can damage the skin in sunlight. They fail to require makers to measure sunscreen stability despite ample evidence that many products break down quickly in sunlight.

Read more.


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