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What your mama never told you about sunscreen. The 2011 Green Mama Guide to safer sun exposure

It’s enough to drive parents crazy: “Slather your kids in sunscreen!” we are told. Yet, we are learning that the majority of popular sunscreens might NOT provide protection from the worst of the skin cancers and might actually increase our children’s chances of getting some cancers.



 According to the EWG sunscreens known to contain ingredients possibly linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption include: Panama Jack, Origins, No-Ad, Neutrogena, L’Oreal, Hawaiian Tropic, Coppertone, Bareminerals, Banana Boat, Aveeno. These supposedly “green” companies didn’t have a single recommended sunscreen: Avalon Organics, Aubrey Organics, Beauty without Cruelty, Burt’s Bees, EcoLips, The Body Shop, Zia Natural. 

Adding to the confusion, the FDA after 33 years, has finally announced new sunscreen regulations for the U.S. The regulations will go into effect in a year (or two if it is a smaller company.)  On the positive side, these regulations means sunscreen manufacturers will no longer be able to make claims like “waterproof,” “sweatproof,” and “sunblock” all of which were terribly misleading to a public who thought that, well, then the sunscreen wouldn’t come off in the water or when you sweat. Yet, it did. (Silly us!)

Unfortunately, the independent research and consumer protection group, The Environmental Working Group (widely regarded as the experts on skincare health and safety in the U.S.) say the new rules don’t go nearly far enough. In particular, they pointed to the fact that the system the FDA approved (versus what it proposed in 2007) doesn’t meaningfully distinguish between products that offer little UVA protection from those that offer ample UVA protection. Once again, consumers will be left in the dark (or visiting compulsively to determine what is really safe.)  The EWG also points out that the FDA will continue to allow “oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, and several other ingredients in sunscreens despite scientists’ concerns about their toxicity.”

Possibly the biggest disappointment of the new FDA announcement is that it will do nothing to provide more kinds of sunscreens to an American public that is barred from having newer, and sometimes safer and more effective ingredients. There are more than 10 ingredients being used in Europe and 20+ in Japan that the FDA just hasn’t gotten around to testing. This all leads to some bad news for North American consumers.

The bad news, simplified: Your sunscreen might not protect you from dying of skin cancer (and some sunscreens might actually increase your chances of cancer).

What your mama never told you about sunscreen

The FDA says it is “not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer,” according to a recent Huffington Post article.  It gets worse: A 2007 meta-analysis of 17 (of 18 known studies on the subject) “there was no statistically significant effect of use of sunscreens on risk of melanoma.” The study further found that in latitudes greater than 40 degrees (New York and north—i.e. Chicago, Vancouver, etc.) the use of sunscreen might actually “contribute to the risk of melanoma.”  (Malignant melanoma is the deadliest of skin cancers accounting for about 4% of skin cancers but 75% of skin cancer related deaths.)

The study specifically points out that common sunscreen formulations absorb UVB almost completely, but transmit large quantities of UVA. It is thought that THIS issue of sunscreens blocking the UVB rays but not the UVA rays might be at the heart of why many sunbathers who cover up with sunscreen are at higher risk for developing melanoma skin cancer.  The skin doesn’t get “burnt” because the burning rays are blocked, but it still gets zapped. 

The science of sun-light 

Ultraviolet (UV) light is divided into 3 wavelength ranges that are referred to as UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. UVC is the most energetic and shortest of the UV rays. It burns quickly and in small doses. It is also absorbed entirely by the ozone layer. Thus when talking sunscreen, we are primarily dealing with UVA and UVB rays.

UVB is the UV ray that is primarily responsible for sunburn. It also stimulates the body’s production of Vitamin D; melanin, which protects human skin from sun damage; and Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone (MSH), an important hormone in weight loss and energy production. Only 5% of the UV-B light range goes through glass and it does not penetrate clouds, smog, or fog.

UVA is primarily responsible for darkening the pigment in our skin. It is the “tanning ray.”  UVA is less energetic than UVB, but has a longer wavelength. This means UVA rays penetrate deeper. UVA rays are less likely to cause sunburn, however UVA rays are now considered to be a major contributor to non-melanoma skin cancers. Until recently, UVA was not blocked by sunscreens (and still isn’t blocked by most sunscreens sold in America) and 78% of UVA can even penetrate through glass windows.

Vitamin D and sunlight

Vitamin D might be referred to as the miracle Vitamin.  It does it all: contributes to strong bones, healthy immune and endocrine systems, and can help prevent a plethora of today’s diseases from diabetes and obesity to depression and infertility. 

As you read above, Vitamin D can be absorbed from sunlight: UVB rays to be exact.  However, getting enough Vitamin D from the sun is hard. Unlike the UVA rays which are steady throughout the day and penetrate through just about anything, UVB rays are fickle—you have to get them at just the right angle and without clouds, clothes, or other barriers. For a person who lives in the “northern latitudes” (think Chicago, New York, all of Canada) to get a healthy daily dose of Vitamin D from sunlight, a light-skinned person would have to spend 10 to 20 minutes in full sunlight between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.  A dark-skinned person 90 to 120 minutes. That’s right—the exact hours our mothers told us to stay indoors.  Any earlier or later and the angle of the UVB rays would mean spending more time and more time means more exposure to those deep penetrating UVA rays. Oh, and it has to be the WHOLE body exposed—85%–not just hands and feet.

The issues with sunscreen

Sunscreens are effective at blocking UVB rays, but do not do such a good job of blocking UVA rays.  So, though sunscre
ens are effective at reducing the risk of squamos-cell carcinoma (associated with exposure to UVB rays), this is neither particularly abundant (at 16% of skin cancer cases) nor particularly deadly. UVB rays are also the ones associated with Vitamin D production in the body. As noted above it seems likely that this very trait of blocking against UVB but not UVA might be at the heart of why sunscreen wearers have the same or even worse chances of getting melanoma—the deadliest of skin cancers.

Dirty sunscreen

In those 30+ years while the FDA had been working on comprehensive sunscreen safety regulations, the U.S. was left with almost no oversight and the result was the Wild West of the Sunscreen industry. Even worse, better options were being researched and brought onto the market in the E.U., Asian, and (to a MUCH lesser extent Canada) and these are still not available 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,” reports the Environmental Working Group.

In an independent investigation of 946 name-brand sunscreens, the EWG found that 4 out of 5 offered inadequate protection. The worst offenders were often the market leaders.  Even worse, they found that many brands made inaccurate and misleading claims such as “water-proof,” “broad-spectrum protection,” and even “chemical-free.”  Because there are no regulations around most of these terms, the companies can make claims such as “water-proof” even though there is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen or “SPF 100” without any basis for their claim.

Ingredients to watch for in sunscreen:

In the U.S. and Canada sunscreens are regulated as drugs. This means it has taken longer for both of the countries to approve some of the newer chemicals thought to be safer and provide more UVA protection. This also means that they are not required to list all of the ingredients on their labels in either country. 

Fragrance or Parfums are considered trade secrets so even in Canada where ingredients are supposed to be listed, dozens of chemicals—including suspected neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors—can be hidden behind these seemingly innocuous terms.

High SPF factors. High SPF ratings were found by the FDA to be “inherently misleading.” These high-SPF products often contain more of the above offending ingredients and can encourage people to stay in the sun longer without providing any additional protection.

Nanoparticles. Micronized or nanoscale particles of minerals are often found in titanium or zinc based sunscreens. These tiny particles are easily absorbed into the body and blood.

Oxybenzone. Found in almost all sunscreens, oxybenzone is an allergen, potential endocrine disruptor. It is easily absorbed through the skin, particularly in children, and can interphere with hormone development.

Parabens. Parabens, such as methyl paraben and butyl paraben, are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic the female hormone estrogen and are linked with reproductive disorders in boys and possibly cancers in women.

Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) has mostly been phased-out of sunscreens because of high incidence of allergic reactions in response to its use. 

Retinol or retinyl palmitate. Found in many name-brand sunscreens, this type of Vitamin A is photocarcinogenic and might actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.

Better Sunscreens

 Visit the EWG to find better sunscreens available in the U.S. (Note: As mnetioned above in Canada, Europe, and Asia you might be able to find even better options.) Some of these brands include: California Baby, Eco Skin Care, Kiss My Face Sun Stick, Maui Natural Organics, Raw Elements USA, The Green Beaver Company, Tropical Sands All Natural Sunscreen, Tru Kid Unscented Mineral Sunscreen, UV Natural. 

The issues with sunscreen

The Green Mama’s advice on sun safety

The information is scary and the science inconclusive, but here is some good advice that even your mother will agree with.

  1. Look up your sunscreen on the EWG’s cosmetic database. If it isn’t safe, chuck it. Choose a better sunscreen that protects against UVA rays and doesn’t contain any of the above ingredients to watch for.  Europe has better sunscreens available.)
  2. Invest in a sun hat, consider sun protective bathing suits, and try out protective clothing.
  3. Eat your sunscreen. Foods high in carotenoids provide natural sun protection.  These include many fruits and vegetables, especially leafy dark greens and those that are yellow-orange like apricots, carrots, and yams. Other good sources include eggs, spirulina, and algae. The red pigment found in salmon, trout, and shrimp is another potent carotenoid.
  4. Get your Vitamin D. You would have to spend about 15 minutes between the hours of 10 and 2, with 85% of your body exposed for optimal Vitamin D absorption (for a fair skinned person, much more for a dark skinned person). Foods high in Vitamin D include “intestines, organ meats, skin and fat from certain land animals, as well as shellfish, oily fish and insects.” To get Vitamin D from the animal they must have be exposed to sunlight or in the case of fish have been fed on phytoplankton. Most modern diets don’t include a lot of intentional insect eating (fortunately) or a lot of animal flesh actually exposed to sunlight
    (unfortunately). Most people will not get enough Vitamin D from sun or diet. (You can ask your doctor to test your Vitamin D levels.) A good cod liver oil is one of the most absorbable forms of Vitamin D supplementation.  
  5. BEWARE of sunscreens labeled over 50 SPF. Most of these are disingenuous at best and are possibly loaded with more of the most hazardous ingredients. It is better to use an SPF between 15 and 30 and reapply frequently and generously.
  6. Do not apply sunscreen to infants under 6 months of age. There skin is super absorbent and even subtle exposures to their developing organs can have lasting effects AND fair-skinned babies do not have melanin proteins for sun protection. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you avoid using sunscreen on children younger than 6 months.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.  Women with child by Goodluv. Child in hat by Eric Boucher.

Article by Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama

As with any advice found on The Green Mama take it all with a grain of salt, participate in doing your own research (and let us know what you find), and don’t do anything crazy without consulting a trusted health care professional. 

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