Friday, June 17, 2011

The Truth (?) About Sunscreen

 This week, the FDA updated sunscreen safety and regulation information.  As I was reading some of the new information, I made a number of troubling discoveries.  As someone who is dotted with small, round scars where the dermatologist has scraped potential cancerous spots off my skin, I want my sunscreen to work.  According to new research, in many cases, it doesn't--at least not in the ways or to the degree that I expected.  Here are some things I have learned.

  • First, the SPF (sun protection factor) refers only to the level of UVB protection. UVB rays are the ones that cause sunburns.  UVA rays are the ones that cause skin cancer.  Sunscreen manufacturers may claim that their products are "broad spectrum," but that has not been a regulated claim and could mean next to nothing.
  • SPFs higher than 50 don't mean much.  According to an expert quoted in June's Women's Health Magazine, SPF 30 protects against 97% of UVB rays, SPF 50 98%, and SPF 100 against 99%: in other words, the numbers are misleading.
  • Vitamin A, an "anti-aging" ingredient added to 30% of sunscreens on the market, could lead to accelerated cancer growth.  I just bought a face sunscreen yesterday.  It has Vitamin A in it.  I will be returning the sunscreen.
  • Many sunscreens contain a chemical that some scientists and doctors claim to be dangerous.  Oxybenzone is added to sunscreens and may penetrate the skin and act as a hormone-disruptor.  There is general disagreement about what effect oxybenzone has, with some groups cautioning against its use and others dismissing concerns since only a small amount is likely to be absorbed.  The American Academy of Dermatology recommends its use. 
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has listed 600+ sunscreens based on effectiveness and potentially dangerous ingredients.  Unfortunately (for me anyway), none of the "best" sunscreens are likely to be found on any shelves near me--the more widely-available brands are the more dangerous ones. 

What's troubling as well is the fact that there seems to be a lot of disagreement about these issues.  The EWG has been condemned by some as over-exaggerating the dangers, using out-dated methodology, and having an ulterior motive, as outlined in this piece from the Huffington Post (read the first comment as well for a response from the EWG).  Additionally, the EWG disagrees with many recognized authorities: for example on the danger of oxybenzone (see above) and the potential side-effects of sunless tanner (see below).
Sure, it is possible that dangers have been over-exaggerated by some Chicken Littles out there.  But, I admit, I am very afraid of cancer and frustrated with the lack of consensus over causes and prevention.  It seems lately that there are sensationalized news articles about potential carcinogenic effects of everything from cell-phones to cleaning products.  I try to sort through the research as best I can, err on the side of caution, and go with the advice of credible organizations.  With that in mind, here are a few useful links:

The EWG's list of surprising findings about sunscreens, as well as sun safety tips

The Mayo Clinic:
On Sunless Tanner (The Mayo Clinic approves of sunless tanning, unlike the EWG).
Does your Sunscreen Expire?  Yes, but only after about three years.

Tips from the American Academy of Dermatology on Skin Cancer Prevention.

The American Cancer Society promotes the catchy Slip, Slop, Slap, Wrap method.
Basically, the advice seems to be to avoid making sunscreen your first or only line of defense, but instead, avoid the strongest sun rays (between 10am and 4pm) and stay in the shade, and wear long sleeves and broad-brimmed hats.  Sunglasses are also super-important, and should be labeled for both UVA and UVB protection and actually cover your eyes.  Since I can't even go outside to check the mail without my sunglasses, this isn't hard for me to get used to.  Sunscreen is still a necessity.  Hopefully, with the new FDA rules, it will be easier to pick one that actually has good UVA and UVB coverage.  I'm going to be avoiding Vitamin A, but I'm still undetermined about oxybenzone--it's rather hard to find one without it.

So, hopefully, it's beach, yes, skin cancer, no.  Happy Summer.

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