May 13, 2011

Understanding Sunscreen and What Should Be Avoided

Warm weather in the northeast is on its way, which means more time spent outside and more time exposed to the sun's harmful rays. As I dig deeper in my quest for knowledge on how to live healthier in today's chemical-reliant world, I'm discovering more and more ways we are contributing to our own demise. Sounds a bit dramatic, I know, but it's true. Some of these contributors we know about, some we don't. Sunscreen is one of those topics that has been discussed a lot lately. I knew of the top-level reasons why some sunscreen ingredients should be avoided, however, in researching this topic I've decided to ditch my stockpile of traditional sunscreens and invest in some that are considered safer.

To fully understand sunscreen and why it's necessary, I wanted to investigate what UVA and UVB were and why they're dangerous. Yes, very elementary, but all I really knew was that they're harmful and we should protect ourselves against them. But why? According to the U.S. Department of Health and The World Health Organization, UV is a proven human carcinogen. The sun emits three types of rays in different wavelengths: ultraviolet A (long wave), ultraviolet B (short wave) and ultraviolet C (much shorter wave, which is mostly absorbed by the earth's ozone layer and doesn't make it to us.)

These rays are much less intense than UVB, but are also much more prevalent. They are consistently present throughout the day and can pass through the cloud layer, as well as glass. These rays penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB and can cause premature skin aging and wrinkles. Up until recently, scientists were unaware of their cancer-causing abilities.

UVA is the dominant tanning ray. A tan is essentially damage to your skin's DNA. In the attempt to protect itself and prevent further damage, the skin darkens. These mutations to your skin can result in skin cancer. Tanning salons are the perfect place to subject yourself to highly toxic doses of UVA. Those who visit a tanning bed are 1.5 to 2.5 times more likely to develop a type of carcinoma and if you visit one as a youth, you're 75% more likely to develop melanoma. My one and only visit to a tanning salon is making me cringe.

UVB rays are the ones that can cause sunburn and damage to your skin's outermost layers, leading again to skin cancer and premature aging. You're most at risk from these rays throughout spring into fall and during the time period, I'm sure you've heard, is the most dangerous to be exposed to the sun, from 10am to 4pm. UVB rays, however, cannot significantly penetrate glass. Both UVA and UVB rays can also contribute to eye damage (including cataracts) and immune system suppression.

Keeping protected from the sun
Understanding how the sun's rays effect us gives good reason to look for ways to protect ourselves while exposed. Of course, the experts say the best way to do this is to stay out of the sun during the midday hours, when the UVB rays cause the most damage. Wearing protective clothing while outside is also hugely important. Perhaps it's time to sport that wide brimmed hat buried in your closet and definitely don't forget to wear your sunglasses.

The FDA's role
Staying out of the sun and wearing protective clothing isn't always practical. Especially for those of us in the northeast, after a LONG winter of being trapped inside, we want out. And when we are, sunscreen is the solution most of us choose to use. However, dangers from sunscreen ingredients have recently been identified and the question becomes, "cancer from the sun's rays or cancer from the sunscreen that's supposed to protect?" Some protection. There are some serious issues within the FDA, whose job it is to protect the public's health. They've been working on developing comprehensive regulations for sunscreen safety and effectiveness...since 1978. Nothing has been finalized. Very loose guidelines have been issued, however nothing legally mandated.

Ingredients to avoid in sunscreen
Some of the current ingredients allowed to be used in sunscreen (many of which have been banned in Europe) generate free radicals when exposed to UV light, which lead to cellular damage and mutations that can cause cancer. Some are potential hormone disruptors, impacting reproductive, nervous, thyroid and immune systems (similar to DDT, dioxins and PCBs.) In addition, since these chemicals are synthetic and our bodies have difficulty breaking them down, they end up being stored in our body fat. The Environmental Working Group has rated sunscreen ingredients based on concern for human exposure and toxicity. The worst contenders include (read more):
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC) - up for approval by the FDA
  • Benzophenone-3 (oxybenzone) - especially hazardous for children
  • 3-Benzylidene camphor - up for approval by the FDA
  • Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC)
  • Padimate O
  • Retinyl palmitate or retinol
Key findings regarding sunscreen use
Below is a quick summary of the findings discussed in the EWG's 9 Surprising Truths about sunscreen. Click on the above link for further details. It's a really interesting read.
  • There are many differing opinions as to whether or not sunscreen decreases the risk of skin cancer. The National Cancer Institute has concluded that there is little evidence to support this. In fact, as cited by a number of experts, the incidence of skin cancer is on the rise despite an increased use of sunscreen. Although it's reported that sunscreen use reduces the risk for squamous-cell carcinoma (a slow growing, treatable cancer accounting for 16% of all skin cancers), studies have shown a higher rate of the deadliest cancer, malignant melanoma, in frequent sunscreen users.
  • SPF, Sun Protection Factor, provides a measure of the sunscreen's effect against UVB rays. You'll find many products that have a factor of 30 and above, which can be misleading to consumers. The higher the number doesn't necessarily mean better protection. Many believe it does and will stay out in the sun for a longer period of time, increasing their exposure risks. The higher protection in the sunscreen equates to a greater concentration of chemical ingredients, increasing the amount being absorbed into your body. In addition, the amount of sunscreen the average person actually applies is about 1/4 of what is applied in a laboratory setting. Therefore, the actual SPF you're receiving is much less than what's stated on the bottle.
  • Many sunscreens, especially high SPF products, fail drastically in UVA protection. The EWG has tested 446 beach and sport sunscreens with SPF ratings of 30+ and determined that two-thirds of them provide inadequate UVA protection. Since there have been no regulatory changes since 1978, only two ingredients have made their way through the FDA approval process. These were added to the list of 17 ingredients sunscreen manufacturer's can choose from to put in their formulations. To give you perspective, in Europe there are 27 ingredients available, 7 of which are approved for UVA absorption. The U.S. has only approved 3, of which avobenzone is the most common, yet is proven to be unstable and also comes with the dangers listed above.
  • The sunscreen ingredient most commonly found in U.S. products, a form of Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or retinol), has been documented to speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when exposed to sunlight. Read more.
  • Experts advise avoiding sunscreens in their powder and spray forms due to the potential for inadvertent inhalation, especially with mineral-based products. 
What sunscreens are considered safe for my family?

The EWG performs comprehensive testing on the majority of sunscreens available to the U.S. consumer. Click here to review their most recent list of top-rated broad spectrum (both UVA/UVB) sunscreens. You can also search for your specific sunscreen and see how well or poorly it's rated. You'll be shocked to see how many of the readily available sunscreens are considered a high health risk.

Although I'll be replacing a bunch of my family's sunscreen, we do currently use Badger on my boys' faces, which received a Recommended rating. At least I'm on the right track. Enjoy the outdoors and know you're doing it as safely as possible!


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