It’s time to have that conversation about safe sun and safe sunscreen. For most of us, a little sun exposure is healthy and feels great, but too much is a factor in causing skin cancer. So that means slathering on the sunscreen, right? Well … yes, but the answer is actually more complicated. A little knowledge goes a long way toward improving your safety in the sun.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has updated its comprehensive review of the scientific literature and concluded that there is little evidence that sunscreen – BY ITSELF – reduces cancer risk, “particularly for melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer. Despite a growing awareness of the dangers of sun exposure and a multi-billion dollar sunscreen industry, melanoma rates have tripled over the past three decades.” EWG, in fact, does recommend using sunscreen, but cautions that sunscreen is just part of a solution, that certain sunscreen formulations should be avoided.
Understanding two main points is more than half the battle:
- Two kinds of ultraviolet radiation are factors in causing skin cancer. Sunscreens block UVB, which causes sunburn, but most don’t do a good job of blocking UVA radiation, which is equally damaging to your skin. By preventing sunburn, sunscreens give us a false sense of safety, encouraging us to spend more time in the sun and increasing our exposure to damaging UVA rays.
- All sunscreens are not created equal, and SPF is NOT the way to find the safest, most effective brands. “In 2011, FDA determined that high SPF claims may be ‘inherently misleading,’” Again, part of the reason is that they give us a false sense of safety and encourage us to spend more time in the sun.
Recommended Sunscreen Products
Mineral-only Sunscreens: EWG recommends sunscreens that block radiation physically by coating your skin with minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. “They are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance between protection from … UVA and UVB, and don’t often contain potentially harmful additives.” My personal experience with these sunscreens is that they can feel oily compared with more mainstream products, but you can get used to them. They are not absorbed into your skin, but instead form a protective surface barrier.
Finding Safe Sunscreens: EWG offers several ways to find safe sunscreens:
- EWG’s free Healthy Living app for both iPhones and Android phones allows you to scan the barcode of more than 120,000 food and personal care products, including sunscreens, and get their safety ratings in the store, before you buy. Download it for your iPhone here or your Android phone here.
- On your computer, check EWG’s Skin Deep Database for sunscreens by brand.
- Shop at EWG’s Sun Safety Store on Amazon.
What to Avoid
Oxybenzone and octinoxate: Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin, which is why they feel less “oily” than mineral-based sunscreens. However, the most commonly used ingredients (oxybenzone was found in 70% of the sunscreens EWG studied) are hormone disruptors. These are especially concerning when used on children, but also an issue for adults. According to EWG:
“Animal studies find lower sperm counts and sperm abnormalities after exposure to oxybenzone and octinoxate, delayed puberty after exposure to octinoxate and altered estrous cycling for female mice exposed to oxybenzone. Recently Danish researchers reported that eight of 13 chemical sunscreen ingredients allowed in the U.S. … could reduce male fertility.”
Vitamin A: Vitamins are good things, right? Not in this case. Government test data shows more skin tumors and lesions on animals treated with this ingredient and exposed to sunlight. Avoid suncreens containing some formulation of Vitamin A, often called retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol.
Sprays: “EWG [and the FDA] are concerned that these products pose an inhalation risk and may not provide a thick and even coating on skin…. EWG cautions people to avoid these products.”
EWG’s Sun Safety Recommendations
EWG notes that outdoor workers, who are regularly exposed to the sun, don’t have higher rates of skin cancer than the rest of us. This suggests that the most damaging exposure occurs among those of us who get lots of sun exposure in very short periods of time and very little exposure the rest of the year – leading to the conclusion that “the most important step people can take to reduce their melanoma risk is to avoid sunburn but not all sun exposure.”
EWG’s Dos and Don’ts
- Do not use sunscreen as a tool to prolong your time in the sun.
- Cover up! Hats, shirts and sunglasses are the best protection.
- Avoid sunburn.
- Do not use a tanning bed or sunbathe.
- Protect kids! Early life sunburns are worse, so keep little ones out of the hot sun.
- Pick a sunscreen with strong UVA [as well as UVB] protection.
- Get vitamin D. There is speculation but not proof that adequate levels of vitamin D can reduce the risk of melanoma. But we know that vitamin D is good for combatting other types of cancer. Commit to getting screened for vitamin D deficiency.
- Examine your skin. Check your skin regularly for new moles that are tender or growing. Ask your primary care doctor how often you should see a dermatologist.
- EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens
- EWG’s Skin Deep Database
- Healthy Living app on iPhone or on Android
- EWG’s Sun Safety Store on Amazon
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