Got Sunscreen? Are You Doing Yourself More Harm Than good?
At times this winter, the heat and warmth of the sun seemed a distant memory. But here we are again, enjoying a most-welcome spring with summer just around the corner. And while I imagine many of us will be looking to take full advantage of the sun's rays in a few short weeks, especially after being cooped up all winter, enjoying time outdoors is not without its challenges. Spending time in the sun requires a careful balancing act. After all, absorption of the sun's rays improves mood and triggers the production of Vitamin D, which is essential for a number of the body's internal processes and critical to our very survival. However, the UV light of the sun's rays also causes skin cancer and prematurely ages the skin. Compounding the issue is a growing body of research that strongly suggests that the conventional "protection" of sunscreen may be as, if not more, harmful than the sun itself.
Sunscreens have been around for nearly 100 years and comprise an annual, billion dollar industry in the United States. There are 17 individual sunscreen ingredients that are FDA approved, 15 of which are clear chemicals that absorb UV light. These chemical sunscreens do not stay on the surface of the skin but are instead absorbed and quickly find their way into the bloodstream, where they are distributed all over the body without being detoxified by the liver. These chemicals can be detected in blood, urine, and breast milk for up to two days after a single application, which might be okay if they were uniformly safe. Unfortunately, they are not.
Of these 15 clear chemicals, 9 are known endocrine disruptors - chemicals that interfere with the body's endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in humans. The hormones most commonly affected are estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Endocrine disruptors can cause abnormal development of fetuses and growing children. They can cause early puberty and premature breast development in girls, and small and undescended testicles in boys. They can cause low sperm counts and infertility and also contribute to the development of breast and ovarian cancers in women, and prostate cancer in men.
The other two FDA approved sunscreen ingredients are two minerals, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These two work very differently than the other ingredients, in that they sit on the surface of the skin and physically block UV light. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are rocks that are ground down to a fine consistency. These are better choices than the chemical UV light absorbers, but increasingly
companies are processing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide into ultrafine, nanoparticles or micronized versions. A recent study
from MIT and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) suggests that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles can significantly damage human DNA. Because the micronized versions are so small, they are likely to penetrate the skin and our body's cells much more easily than the larger sized version of these minerals and cause significant breakage in our cells' DNA, which can ultimately lead to a host of cancers and other health problems. DNA damage is particularly problematic in children, whose cells are rapidly and constantly dividing. Many popular, conventional brands of sunscreen such Coppertone Sport, Coppertone Water Babies, Aveeno, Neutrogena, Banana Boat, Bull Frog, Hawaiian Tropic and most store brands have received terrible safety ratings from the Environmental Working Group's Sunscreen Guide
when it comes to these concerns.
So when planning your or your family's outdoor adventures this year, avoid the following ingredients and/or properties common in today's sunscreen:
- Oxybenzone - the most popular ingredient in chemical based sunscreens but also a hormone disrupting chemical which penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream.
- Vitamin A (Retinyl Palmitate) - A 2009 study by the National Toxicology Program found that in the presence of sunlight, Retinyl Palmitate may actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.
- Fragrance - a petroleum based product that is linked to organ toxicity and allergies.
- High SPF - The FDA does not regulate SPF higher than 50 and many of the higher SPFs do not provide any additional protection. Some studies suggest that users are exposed to as many or more ultraviolet rays as those who use lower-SPF products.
- Sprays or Powders - Sprays and powders have additional chemicals added to them for performance purposes, which can be toxic to the lungs.
Instead, follow these tips to make the best sunscreen choice:
- Choose non-nano titanium dioxide and zinc oxide based mineral sunscreens that do not have small particles that can absorb into skin.
- Choose lotion-based sunscreens with water resistance.
- Choose broad spectrum sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB rays.
- Choose sunscreen products that are rated 0-2 in the Environmental Working Group's Sunscreen Guide.
For a list of products that meet these criteria, click on this link
. Spending just a few minutes this summer to find the right balance to best protect yourself and your loved ones from both the sun and sunscreen offers the best chances for a safe, enjoyable summer.