Screening Suncreens

protecting against the bright sun
Courtesy of Creative Commons

I’m one of those grocery shoppers that turns the package around to check the ingredients, before I buy anything for the first time. Checking food packages is relatively easy, because I expect only recognizable simple ingredients. As Michael Pollan says, would my Great Grandmother recognize this as food? However, what about sunscreen? You don’t really expect to know all the ingredients in sunscreen, so how can you tell if it is safe to use?

The Environmental Working Group has done extensive research to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of over 500 sunscreens currently on the market, so you don’t have to. Their fourth annual “2010 Sunscreen Guide” lists the best and worst sunscreens, and it allows you to look up information on your sunscreen. It is worth a look to make sure your current sunscreen isn’t on the “Hall of Shame” list. The Environmental Working Group also provides a lot of detailed information about sunscreen ingredients that can be damaging to your body.

This year there is concern over the large number of sunscreens with exaggerated SPF claims. There are substantially more sunscreens with high-SPF ratings in 2010, with one in six products claiming higher than SPF 50. The FDA believes that these higher ratings are “inherently misleading.” Many of these high-SPF sunscreens provide little protection from UVA radiation, the type of sunlight that doesn’t cause sunburns but does cause other skin damage and cancer. Scientists are worried that the high-SPF products will encourage people to stay out in the sun too long, increasing their risk of sun damage.

In general, most people do not use enough sunscreen to get the real benefit of the SPF rating promised on the bottle. According to the Environmental Working Group, “people typically use about a quarter of the recommended amount.” When under-applied, the typical effectiveness of SPF 100 to 15 sunscreens actually drops down to perform like SPF 3.2 to 2.

This year there is also significant concern over retinyl palmitate, which is a form of vitamin A that is found in 41 percent of sunscreens. Vitamin A is an anti-oxidant that slows aging, so it is commonly used in lotions. This may be a safe ingredient for night creams. However, a recent FDA study found that vitamin A results in the growth of cancerous tumors when used on skin that is exposed to sunlight. The National Toxicology Program is studying whether vitamin A exposed to sunlight forms free radicals that can damage DNA. Although these research studies are preliminary, the Environmental Working Group recommends that you avoid sunscreens with vitamin A (any form of retinyl or retinol).

You also need to be careful of products with hormone-disrupting compounds, such as oxybenzone which is found in about 60 percent of beach and sport sunscreens. Oxybenzone readily penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. This results in increased production of free radicals that may cause cancer and other health issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that 97 percent of Americans tested had oxybenzone in their bodies, and additional research is underway to better understand how this affects our health. So oxybenzone is considered one of the main toxic ingredients to avoid in sunscreens.

All these troubling facts may tempt you to give up on wearing sunscreen altogether. However, public health agencies still recommend using sunscreen, just not as a your first line of defense. Hats, clothing and shade are the most reliable sun protection. When that isn’t enough, then use the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide to help you select a a relatively safe sunscreen.

I was surprised to find that my two favorite sunscreens, Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunblock and Alba Botanica Facial Sunblack, only rated a 4 out of 10 with “moderate” health concerns and UVA protection. So I’m also trying out some of the recommended sunscreens (rated 0-2) in search of a new favorite.

Author: Jennifer Huber

As a Ph.D. physicist and research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I gained extensive experience in medical imaging and technical writing. Now, I am a full-time freelance science writer, editor and science-writing instructor. I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life and I frequently enjoy the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: