Sunscreens: They Ain’t Gonna Kill Ya

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There is a tremendous amount of misinformation regarding sunscreens that induce undue fear in the public. Organizations that propagate these fears contribute to decreased sunscreen use -- one of the most important modalities in protecting one's skin from sun damage.

Sunscreen via Shutterstock Sunscreen via Shutterstock

Part and parcel of any summer is a tube of sunscreen.  There is a plethora of recommendations from many different sources regarding sunscreens. A quick internet search of the toxicity of sunscreens tries to make me believe that I am culpable for actively poisoning myself and my child. Thankfully, I am not as easily swayed by alarmist rhetoric despite the mommy blogs that try to shame me into purchasing the more expensive brands of an already-pricey product.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States with an increase in number of newly-diagnosed cases, as well as deaths attributable to skin cancer. Sun exposure contributes to 90 percent of nonmelanomas (squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma) and 65 percent of melanomas. Ultraviolet light which is radiation from the sun, includes primarily UV-A and UV-B (there is also UV-C but is filtered by the ozone), which are different wavelengths of UV light. The problem with UV radiation is that it penetrates the skin and can cause DNA damage (mutations) – ultimately causing cancer when this happens in excess.

Sadly, fear mongering and misrepresentation of facts are a special skill for organizations such as the Environmental Working Group – possibly one of the most scientifically flawed organizations out there, as we have reported before. The EWG ranks ingredients in sunscreens that are not based on peer reviewed scientific literature and irrespective of what that ingredient is – chances are it’s getting a high “hazard score” and they ultimately do a major disservice to the public.  The most important part of sunscreen use is that you use it – and if you have these organizations telling you it’s harmful, then it discourages its use.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the Canadian Dermatology Association, the Skin Cancer Foundation and the European Union’s Scientific Committee for the Safety of Consumer Products have repeatedly concluded that sunscreens are safe.  And for an organization like EWG, which is not a governmental agency or an academic scientific body to make sweeping declarations about the carcinogenicity or toxicity of a chemical is not only misleading, but irresponsible.

The great thing about sunscreens is that they block UV-A and UV-B.  It is recommended that they are used on average every two hours (or as frequently as needed), have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, and have broad spectrum coverage (meaning it blocks both UV-A and UV-B).  The two main ingredients often contained in sunscreens are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and according to EWG they can cause local skin damage when exposed to the sun (not true) and the nanoparticles comprised of TiO2 and ZO cause lung damage when inhaled (not true), oh and of course TiO2 is a carcinogen (also not true).

They also include in their list of scary ingredients retinyl palmitate – which is basically a storage form of vitamin A in the skin and it's something that is sold at Whole Foods as part of a supplement for babies!

EWG also accuses oxybenzone of being an endocrine disrupting chemical (chemicals that may interfere with the endocrine system and cause negative outcomes).  EWG based their conclusion on flawed studies and others that did not even specifically examine oxybenzone exposure.  We see a lot of studies that link an exposure to an outcome and as we have cautioned time and again – an association is not causation. (Click here for Dr. Josh Bloom's cantankerous rant).

So the great news for all of us this summer is slather on the sunscreen cream or lotion, use it liberally, use it frequently – you will not die from it.