Summer has finally arrived, bringing with it the annual trips to buy sunscreen. When browsing down the skin-care aisle, have you ever wondered what are the chemicals in sunscreen and if they are safe? And, with so many sunscreens choices, why are skin cancer rates rising?
The good news is that sunscreen is a vital tool in the prevention of skin cancer, and thanks to recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changes, we will no longer have to worry about whether the stated claims match reality.
What is sunscreen?
Sunscreen was originally developed to stop sunburns by blocking ultraviolet B rays (UVB), in 1928. Sunscreens concoctions are comprised of inorganic chemicals that reflect the sun rays (zinc oxide and titanium oxide) and organic chemical agents that absorb the sun’s rays (oxybenzone, avobenzene, and dioxybenzone).
The sun protection factor rating (SPF) used in measuring the efficiency of sunscreens only measures UVB protection. For example, an SPF15 sunscreen filters out roughly 94 percent of UVB rays, whereas a SPF 30 filters out 97 percent.
But, at sea level, UVA (ultraviolet A) rays comprise 95 percent of the UV energy reaching the earth, while UVB is just 5 percent. Due to both UVA and UVB being dangerous to our skin, it’s vital to protect against both. SPF ratings do not address UVA protection. ₁
Recent FDA rulings have improved sunscreen testing and labeling, with the goal to make buying sunscreens less confusing and more accurate (no sunscreen is “waterproof”) and to ensure the products work.
The main change is that today’s sunscreens must meet specific protection and testing guidelines in order to label a sunscreen “broad spectrum”. The “broad spectrum” label now means that a sunscreen protects sufficiently for both UVA and UVB rays.
Why are skin cancer rates rising?
According to the Center for Disease Control, between 2000-2009, skin cancer rates have increased significantly for both men and women. Many factors play into skin cancers: genetics, skin tones, time in direct sun and tanning beds and cultural norms to name a few.
Plus, we are pretty lousy at following sunscreen directions!
Scientific studies confirm that people don’t apply enough sunscreen. The FDA standard for SPF ratings assumes a sunscreen layer of 2 mg/cm². In reality, we coat our skin closer to 0.5 to 1.0 mc/cm², meaning we’re often out in the sun with only 25 to 50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen. ₂ The American Academy of Dermatology recommends one ounce, or one shot glass, of sunscreen application for exposed skin.
Adding to “poor patient compliance”, people gain a false sense-of-safety when applying sunscreen, especially the super-high SPF formulas (new FDA rules no longer any sunscreen over SPF50.) A recent study concluded that people wearing super-high SPF sunscreen increased intentional sun exposure between 13 to 39 percent. ₃ Dermatologists always recommend that the best and safest sunscreens are hats, shirts, swim shirts and beach umbrellas!
Another key point is that sunscreen chemicals don’t work after 2 hours. There is no such thing as all-day protection.
Sunscreen debate: sprays & questionable chemicals
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an independent research and advocacy organization, recently made media waves with its What not to bring on vacation sunscreen guide.
EWG suggests consumers avoid sunscreen sprays, the chemical oxybenzone, the anti-oxidant retinyl palmitate (Vitamin A) and super-high SPF sunscreens. EWG’s list of no’s whittled down their best sunscreen list to only 184 sunscreens with the most popular sunscreens excluded. So what gives?
Let’s tackle sprays first.
EWG claims that sprays may cause severe respiratory issues and that consumers can’t gauge how well they’ve applied their sunscreen. The new FDA rules by-passed both spray issues altogether. The FDA has stated it will be studying both of these claims. The absence of data doesn’t mean these issues aren’t true, we just don’t know yet.
Onto the common sunscreen chemicals, oxybenzone and retinyl.
Oxybenzone is a skin protectant used in half of all sunscreens and it’s true that some studies show that oxybenzone can possibly be estrogenic (hormone disruptors). But, the Journal of American Academy Dermatology ₄ points out that “no consensus exists regarding their effective estrogenicity or clinical relevance.” Bottom-line: It’s still up-in-the-air if oxybenzone is bad. Europe mandates that sunscreens which contain 5 percent or greater of oxybenzone, must state that fact clearly on the bottle.
Retinyl palmitate (Vitamin A) is an anti-aging, antioxidant included in as many as 41 percent of sunscreens. Though some scientific studies reveal that high doses of retinyl palmitate increased skin tumors in mice, the opposite was found at different retinyl concentrations in the same studies. According to a commentary in The Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, “there is no convincing evidence to support that retinyl palmitate is photocarcinogenic. ₅ (a carcinogen when in contact with light.)”
Which form of sunscreen is best?
At this stage, it’s a personal call.
If you like to avoid questionable chemicals (Bisphenol-A is another example), below is a list of easy-to-find lotions that protect skin with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and don’t include retinyl available at most stores. Natural and health food stores offer the harder-to-find options listed on the EWG “yes” database.
If you are the type that waits for more conclusive studies, use what works for you and your family, just make sure you “spray heavily and rub in”. A quick “whish-whish” with a sunscreen spray won’t cut it.
Bottom-line sunscreen smarts:
- Buy “broad spectrum” sunscreen only. Choose an SPF 30-50.
- Apply liberally-about one shot glass of sunscreen.
- Re-apply at least every 2 hours. Stuff doesn’t work after 2 hours.
- If you choose a spray, spray heavily and rub in well. Don’t breathe it in!
- To avoid oxybenzone and sprays, choose lotions with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
- Avoid sunscreen/bug spray combos-too much exposure to bug repellant.
- Cover up, especially during the midday sun hours. Hats and umbrellas are your friends.
Sources & author’s note
Greenlaurel isn’t a doctor and please review these suggestions with your doctor. It’s smart to visit a dermatologist once a year to have a skin check and also to discuss the latest sunscreen research.
1, 2, 3, 4. Sambandan, D. S., & Ratner, D. (2011). Sunscreens: An overview and update. American Academy of Dermatology, February, 748-758. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2010.01.005
5. Wang, S. Q., Dusza, S. W., & Lim, H. W. (2010). Safety of retinyl palmitate in sunscreens: A critical analysis. American Academy of Dermatology, August, 903-906. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2010.07.015
Wang, S. W., & Lim, H. W. (2011). Current status of the sunscreen regulation in the united states: 2011 food and drug administration’s final rule on labeling and effectiveness testing. American Academy of Dermatology, August, 863-869. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2011.07.025