I have written on this in the past but I again think it bears repeating that we need to choose the right sun protection this summer. There is a lot of info worth learning about sunscreen and protection from the sun. One of the first things is, many of the common brands of sunscreen available in the USA are bad for our health. This is a complex issue which I will outlay as easily as possible.
According to the CDC, the rates of skin cancer has been steadily rising since 2003 at a rate of about 1.7% among men and 1.4% among women. There are two different types of UV light which comes from the sun; UVA and UVB. UVB light is the only UV light which stimulates our skin to produce vitamin D. Historically we have understood UVB as being more intense than UVA, due to that many older sunscreens have protected unequally between UVA and UVB providing better protection against UVB than UVA. In the northern hemisphere, during winter, little to no UVB light makes it to the surface of the earth due to our position on the earth as it rotates around the sun.
Today’s research has shown that UVA exposure does contribute to skin cancer and UVB rays makes up only 3-5% of UV light that makes it to the surface of the earth. Since most modern sunscreens continue to unequally protect against UV light many do not offer complete protection against the damage that excessive sun exposure can create. The FDA, the National Cancer Institute and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have all concluded that the available data do not support the assertion that sunscreens alone reduce the rate of skin cancer. This is not to say that you should not use sunscreen, instead you should use the right sunscreen among other forms of protection from the sun.
Many of the most common active ingredients in sunscreens found in the US have little to no data on their safety. According to the Environmental Working Group the most concerning active ingredient is oxybenzone. This chemical is found in 96% of Americans as well as mothers milk and it has anti-androgenic effects in humans resulting in decreased testosterone in males and low birth weights. Of the little that is actually known of the most common active ingredients in sunscreen, it appears that they disrupt hormone activity in humans to some degree and may stimulate an allergic reaction visible on the skin. A common inactive ingredient, the preservative methylisothiazolinone, has been connected to serious cases of skin allergies. In 2015, researchers from 15 American and Canadian clinics reported an increase in methylisothiazolinone allergies in patients. In March 2015, the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded that no concentration of the chemical could be considered safe in leave-on cosmetic products. But methylisothiazolinone is still allowed in U.S. products. In 2014 the Cosmetics Ingredient Review, or CIR, expert panel, an independent body the American cosmetics industry pays to advise it on the safety of cosmetics ingredients, told the industry that methylisothiazolinone was safe for use in body care products as long as manufacturers came up with formulations that wouldn’t cause allergic reactions. Since FDA has little legal power to regulate cosmetics ingredient safety, it has authorized the cosmetics industry to police itself through this panel, but it’s recommendations are not legally binding, and in several decades, it has declared only 12 ingredients or chemical groups to be unsafe.
Vitamin A is an antioxidant added to skin products because manufacturers believe it slows skin aging. Oral ingestion of vitamin A can reduce the risk of squamous cell carcinoma in people at high risk for skin cancer, but a 2012 federal study raised the possibility that it may speed the growth of cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight. Scientists have found that vitamin A can spur excess skin growth, known as hyperplasia, and that in sunlight, retinyl palmitate can form small molecules called free radicals that damage DNA. The Environmental Working Group recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens and other skin and lip products containing vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinoic acid.
The sunscreens that score the best, that appear to be the safest, have mineral active ingredients not the chemical ingredients found in many of the most common sunscreen brands. In the past sunscreens with these minerals did not rub into the skin leaving a thick white layer of sun protection. Today companies have been able to create these minerals in a nano-particle form which means they can rub clear. No studies have found that these nano-particles pass through our skin and into our bloodstream as the chemical ingredients do, which means they are safer than the chemical compounds. Nano-particles have been found to damage cells when inhaled. While I haven’t mentioned it yet, now is a good time to say you should never use a spray on sunscreen. There is a strong chance of inhaling the ingredients which gets into our bloodstream much easier than through our skin.
It stand to reason that SPF 100 sunscreen would offer better protection than SPF 50 sunscreen. This is not the case. Properly applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98 percent of UVB rays; SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. Again even SPF 100 does not block any more UVA rays at any greater level than SPF 50. When used correctly, sunscreen with SPF values between 30 and 50 offers adequate sunburn protection, even for people most sensitive to sunburn. The FDA has long contended that SPF higher than 50 is “inherently misleading”. Australian authorities cap SPF values at 30, European and Japanese regulators at 50, and Canada allows a maximum of 50+. According to the FDA, there is a “lack of data showing that sunscreens with SPF values above 60 provide additional meaningful clinical benefit.
So what sunscreens should you use that provide the best protection without increasing our risk for serious health consequences? Generally you need to look at the active ingredients, avoid almost all “chemical” sunscreens and go for the mineral ones like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. The chemical active ingredient Mexoryl SX was created by L’Oréal offers good protection with few ill health effects. Specifically you need to reference the sunscreen guide by the Environmental Working Group. We have found good sunscreens on Amazon and at Whole Foods but you need to know what you are looking for and why.
A few other suggestions based on research is that getting a baseline tan is protective against a sunburn, it is the overexposure of a sunburn that contributes to skin cancer than just the exposure of sunlight. Does that make sense? Not all sun exposure is going to cause skin cancer, only over exposure (sunburn) damages our skin resulting in the DNA damage necessary to trigger cancer. Studies have shown that people who work outside have lower rates of skin cancer than people who work indoors. One reason is that regular exposure resulting in a tan protects our skin against overexposure. Another important thing is wearing UV protective clothing when outside, this provides the best protection with almost no risk to our health.
Who knew that choosing the right sunscreen was such a complicated issue? Why it is complicated is that the products we use to help us should not also be harming us at the same time. Really I can’t dig into the entirety of the issue but the people at the Environmental Working Group has. Really what I would like you to do is browse over there and read up more on sunscreen and why you should be selective on which products you put on your skin.