Pulling the shades over your eyes about sunscreens

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As spring turns to summer, ACSH anticipates better beach weather, plenty of summer movie sequels, and a new seasonal scare from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Well, the EWG has yet to disappoint us, and this time, they’re warning us about sunscreens that may contain phototoxic and “dangerous endocrine disrupting” chemicals such as retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone, respectively. According to their database of sun products, consumers can only expect three out of five sunscreens to offer adequate sun protection. But the EWG goes on to criticize the FDA for failing to address the use of the vitamin A derivative retinyl palmitate, which the group says is found in 30 percent of the sunscreens in their database.

ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan thinks the EWG has predictably preyed upon people’s confusion in order to create yet another unproven chemical scare. “Their claims are enhanced by the fact that there’s general confusion about what level of protection is best, and for whom,” she says. “They jump on the sun protection factor (SPF) issue to take on so-called ‘endocrine disruptors’ and other chemicals they don’t like — meaning all chemicals.”

Adding fuel to the summer bonfire, another article, featured by MSNBC — which was initially intended to recommend the most cost-effective sunscreen — also jumps on the chemophobia bandwagon and warns pregnant women and children against sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate. Basing her story on a Consumer Reports study, MSNBC’s Linda Carroll says that “animal studies have linked retinyl palmitate to an increased risk of skin cancer. The ingredient also readily converts to retinoids, which are found in some acne medications and which studies have linked with the risk of birth defects.”

Retinyl palmitate does in fact break down into a retinoid, says ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom, but the retinoid is retinoic acid, best known as vitamin A. “When taken orally in large doses, vitamin A is a known but mild teratogen. However, there is no evidence that the vitamin, when applied to the skin, is associated with birth defects, as absorption into the blood stream is minimal to zero. If the Consumer Reports story had substituted the term ‘vitamin A’ for ‘retinoids,’” notes ACSH's Dr. Josh Bloom, “their scare piece would lose all its sensationalism. This is an obvious and disingenuous tactic: when nothing of substance is there, use scary chemical names to fool people. Sorry, folks — but it didn’t work this time.”

Carroll also warns consumers to avoid sunblocks containing oxybenzone, because the ingredient allegedly interferes with sex hormones and “might have an impact on sexual development and reproduction.” The Skin Care Foundation, however, disagrees. In a recent public statement, they noted, “There has never been any evidence that oxybenzone, which has been available for 20 years, has any adverse health effect in humans. The ingredient is FDA-approved for human use based on exhaustive review. The Foundation’s volunteer Photobiology Committee reviewed the studies on oxybenzone and found no basis for concern."

Our advice: do add sunscreen when sun exposure is planned, check SPF values and choose a sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater. Otherwise, ignore the scares about common products from this alarmist group.