Making Sense of Sunscreen Drama
Staying safe in the sun this summer
When it comes to
putting our bodies outside this summer, we have more than just the ticks to
contend with. While a person who wants to avoid chemicals of questionable
safety might forego makeup, plastic containers, and antiperspirant without
subjecting themselves to bodily harm (personal hygiene concerns aside) they do
not have the same option to avoid sunscreen: Whether or not you burn, experts
agree that there is considerable cancer risk from the sun.
But don’t I need to get my vitamin D?
“10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure (without sunscreen) three times per week is enough to produce the body’s requirement of vitamin D” (Dermascope.com). Anything beyond those 10-15 minutes could be harmful, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation:
“Sun protection is essential to skin cancer prevention…
by damaging the skin’s cellular DNA, excessive UV radiation
produces genetic mutations that can lead to skin cancer.
Both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
and the World Health Organization have identified
UV as a proven human carcinogen.”
If nothing else, the takeaway should be this: Wear sunscreen.
If you have the mental
space, time, and energy to think about which sunscreen to buy
and wear, please read on.
RECENT SUNSCREEN DRAMA
The Environmental Working Group’s [EWG] 2017 Guide to Sunscreens caused some hubbub. Their website lists some sound advice… along with cautions that may be restrictive at best, alarming at worst (see my previous post explaining the short-comings of body care research). Their rating system ranks hundreds of products according to their effectiveness as well as the safety of their ingredients.
At the bottom of the safety list falls oxybenzone. This ingredient, once common in many sunscreens, is now being called out by on many websites as a thing to avoid (thanks, primarily, to the EWG’s list). Is there truth behind their warnings?
A study in 2015 first made headlines when it showed that oxybenzone may contribute to coral bleaching—a phenomenon in which a reef turns white after releasing a protective algae in response to a biological threat. According to the Washington post,
Not only did the study determine that a tiny amount of sunscreen is all it takes to begin damaging the delicate corals — the equivalent of a drop of water in a half-dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools — it documented three different ways that the ingredient oxybenzone breaks the coral down, robbing it of life-giving nutrients and turning it ghostly white.
So many news outlets highlighted this one study, it’s no wonder that oxybenzone has, in many cases, been eliminated from sunscreen formulations. However, experts agree that coral bleaching is linked to warm water temperatures, overfishing, and pollution– so much so that it would be hard to give sunscreen all the credit for devastating the globe’s reefs.
While my personal opinion is that even even if it is slightly to blame, it is worth avoiding, the downside of placing blame is that we risk becoming lackadaisical about water run-off, pollution, and global warming… leaving the more impactful perpetrators un-scathed.
One of the authors of the oxybenzone study even remarks that
“agricultural run-off and sewage… are probably responsible for
the historical collapse of coral reefs for the past 40 years”.
Yet clean water legislation is being threatened under this administration.
ASIDE FROM THE REEFS… IS OXYBENZONE SAFE FOR HUMANS?
The EWG lists other research to support claims that oxybenzone is a hormone disruptor and, therefore, harmful to humans as well as coral. These claims are hard to prove, as the studies have only been conducted in animals. Another study conducted by the CDC is frequently listed to support claims that oxybenzone is absorbed through the skin and into the body. However, this CDC study- while conducted on humans instead of rodents- simply showed a correlation between self-reported sunscreen use and blood levels of BP-3, a chemical associated with the use of oxybenzone in sunscreen.
The study design was meant to measure whether people were accurately reporting sunscreen use- nothing more. The fact that BP-3 is present in the blood of 97% of the population is disconcerting, but in their own discussion, study authors state that this can be due to “BP-3 used in other cosmetics, hair products, shampoo, or food packaging (Calafat et al. 2008; Schlumpf et al. 2001)”. Disconcerting, yes, but not specifically a condemnation of oxybenzone (plastic, anyone?).
Oxybenzone is just one of many chemical sunscreens. According to www.skincancer.org, chemical UV filters form a thin, protective film on the surface of the skin and absorb the UV radiation before it penetrates the skin. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, sit on top of the skin and reflect harmful rays. Both can be effective at blocking harmful UV wavelengths, depending on the amount and application. In fact, here is skincancer.org’s response to a previous iteration of EWG’s sunscreen guide:
Despite the Environmental Working Group’s recent claims about sunscreen ingredient safety, consumers should rest assured that sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate are safe and effective when used as directed. After exhaustive scientific review, both have been approved for use in the U.S. for more than 40 years.
Regardless, most companies are opting to replace oxybenzone with alternative chemicals or physical blockers like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Whatever the ingredients, sunscreen introduces a substance into our bodies, the air, the ground, and the water in quantities that would not be there otherwise.
That is why the absolute safest form of sun protection includes seeking shade during peak hours and using clothing, trees, umbrellas, or other objects to place a barrier between your skin and the direct sun (skincancer.org).
Environmental impact aside, anyone who has ever tried to re-apply sunscreen to a child playing in the water all day knows that a sun-shirt is less traumatic for all parties involved. Especially because the recommendation is to re-apply every 2 hours of sun exposure!
HOW TO KNOW IF A SUNSCREEN WILL BE EFFECTIVE?
Aside from safety concerns, there’s really no point in lathering some sticky/greasy imperfect substance all over yourself if it’s not going to do its job! That SPF number that we’ve all been using as a guide? Apparently, it only applies to sunburn-causing UVB rays, but not to UVA rays, which get further into the body and may cause more harmful effects like skin cancer. How helpful!
Luckily, new FDA rules (as of 2012) state that, in order to be considered broad spectrum, a sunscreen must protect against both UVA and UVB rays. If you want to shop by active ingredients, avobenzone (chemical) and zinc oxide (physical) sunscreens are both rated by the Environmental Protection Agency as providing “extensive” UVA protection.
A notch lower, providing “considerable” UVA protection, are titanium dioxide (a mineral) and meradimate, sulisobenzone, dioxybenzone and oxybenzone (chemicals). These are usually combined with other active ingredients to provide full spectrum protection (but, again, check for the broad spectrum designation to be sure).
OTHER LABELING LAW CHANGES?
The maximum SPF value allowed on sunscreen labels is 50.
None can claim to be waterproof, only water resistant.
And the FDA is investigating the safety of spray-on sunscreens that can be harmful when inhaled. For now, they are still allowed to be sold.
As Lifehacker puts it, "the Better [sunscreen] Is the One You’ll Use (Consistently)".
So if it’s gotta be spray, then do what you’ve gotta do (how do I get my back if I’m all by myself??). Safety concerns involve the inhalation of sprays, so attempt to spray away from others in well-ventilated areas.
YOU STILL HAVE TO PUT IT ON CORRECTLY!
SPF 30 or higher for extended outdoor activity.
Make sure to apply 2 tablespoons of sunscreen (more than you think) to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. If you don’t apply enough, that SPF number means much less.
And reapply every 2 hours.
If you are using a spray, remember to be methodical with the application for even coverage, using hands to rub afterward. Sprays are often applied incorrectly, which is part of the reason why their effectiveness gets questionable reviews, in addition to health and environmental concerns.
SO WHAT DO I BUY??
Up until recently, chemical sunscreens have been widespread because they sink into the skin better than physical sunscreens. Wondering why Badger’s sunscreen feels a little sticky and doesn’t “absorb” as quickly as your Coppertone? Makes sense, as it’s composed of non-nano physical sunscreen (Zinc oxide) that is meant to sit on top of the skin. Don’t worry, a little rubbing and it’ll disappear. Still concerned about a possible hint of white? Try their tinted formulations, which make complete absorption less important.
Because I have not had the pleasure to personally test many natural brands, I would like to share this website, which has one family’s experience with ease of use, water resistance, etc.
I take a similar stance on beauty products as with food: I’d rather stick with the most wholesome ingredients, ones that I know are safe because people have used them for a long time. When it comes to food, this means eating less processed food. For sunscreen this year, I’m opting for zinc oxide based products whenever possible. Zinc has been used on the body for thousands of years with theraputic effect (not just without harm). BUT, as with food, I try not to worry about making everything perfect: If there’s only one option for sunscreen, I’m going to use it no matter what it is.
Choose products with 10-20% zinc
zinc oxide mixed with titanium dioxide,
or 3% avobenzone for the strongest UVA protection.
Make sure it’s labeled broad spectrum.
My all-time favorite review site, thesweethome.com, has a new review up for sunscreen, which includes many conventional products to choose and to stay away from. They also have a good take on reef-safe sunscreens. In general, their reviews are primarily about function and value, less about health and environmental concerns.