Some experts say chemicals in sunscreen risky; others disagree
People lather their scalps every morning. They trust Prell, Suave and Revlon to wash their hair safely.
Leeann Brown is worried more about them lathering their arms, legs and necks with creams that are advertised to protect the skin from sun damage.
Brown, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group in Washington, said her group believes some ingredients in some commercial sunscreen lotions can cause skin and health problems.
Other organizations disagree. The American Academy of Dermatology backs sunscreen as one component of a sun-protection strategy. So does the Skin Cancer Foundation.
The Environmental Working Group — scientists, engineers, policy experts and other professionals who check government data, legal documents, scientific studies and conduct private lab tests to research threats to health and the environment — recently released its sixth annual guide on sunscreens, ranking products on effectiveness and whether they are free from the chemicals the group considers harmful.
Brown said the chief concerns are about oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
Oxybenzone, she said, has been linked to affecting the body’s hormonal system — especially in children. “It is known to penetrate the skin,” she said, adding that the EWG recommends adults also eliminate oxybenzone from their epidermises.
Retinyl palmitate, Brown said, may be identified as vitamin A in some sunscreens.
“The problem with retinyl palmitate,” she said, “there are some government scientists that suggest when retinyl palmitate is applied to the skin, it may spread the development of skin tumors and lesions in the presence of sunlight.”
Sunlight is the real problem. The Skin Cancer Foundation said ultraviolet radiation is part of the electromagnetic light spectrum generated by the sun. Its wavelengths are shorter than visible light, making ultraviolet radiation invisible to the naked eye.
Two types of ultraviolet radiation — UVA and UVB — damage the skin. According to the foundation, UVA is the longer wave ray that causes lasting skin damage and skin aging. UVB rays are the shorter wave rays that cause sunburn and skin damage. Both can cause skin cancer.
The American Academy of Dermatology is not worried about oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate.
“Available peer-reviewed scientific literature and regulatory assessments from national and international bodies do not support a link between oxybenzone in sunscreen and hormonal alterations, or other significant health issues in humans,” said Dr. Daniel M. Siegel, president of the Illinois-based academy, in a statement.
As for retinyl palmitate, Siegel said the form of vitamin A is not an active ingredient in sunscreen. When used in sun protection lotions, he said, it is used as an antioxidant to combat aging effects against sunlight.
“Topical and oral retinoids are widely prescribed to treat a number of skin diseases, such as acne and psoriasis, and there is no published evidence to suggest either increases the risk of skin cancer in these patients,” he said.
The New York City-based Skin Cancer Foundation is also OK with oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
“Despite recent claims about sunscreen safety, consumers should rest assured that sunscreen products, and specifically the ingredients oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, are safe and effective when used as directed,” the foundation said on its website.
“Claims that these ingredients are unsafe are based on questionable science that is not properly reviewed by experts in the field of photomedicine.”
The Environmental Working Group has rated 1,807 products in its sunscreen guide, judging each on topics such as protection from both UVB and UVA radiation, sunscreen stability and health concern. The group also names names: Recommended lotions include Badger SPF 30 (sun protection factor) sunscreen, Desert Essence Organic and Hara Body Care Sport sunscreen, among others.
The group is critical of others, such as Coppertone’s Water Babies sunscreen — which contains oxybenzone — and Banana Boat Baby Tears Free sunblock, which lists retinyl palmitate as an ingredient.
Lavera Baby and Children sunscreen flunks because of the instructions.
Says EWG: “The front of a Lavera sunscreen box claims the product is ‘effective immediately’ and there is ‘no need to wait.’ But the side panel warns, ‘apply . . . 15 minutes before sun exposure.’ Which is it?”
The guide also has problems with expensive lotions. One of them is La Prairie Cellular Radiance Emulsion, an SPF 30 lotion that Environmental Working Group said retails for $267 per fluid ounce. “Consumers who shell out the bucks for pricey SPF-labeled moisturizers rarely get the sun protection they expect,” the guide said.
“There are plenty of sun care products that sell for less than $3 per ounce and offer better sun protection than those that cost up to 90 times more.”
The EWG also has general gripes against the lotions and creams that many people pack for beach and baseball games during July and August.
• Some researchers have detected an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users. The cause is unknown, but scientists speculate that they stay out in the sun longer and absorb more radiation overall. Free radicals released as sunscreen chemicals break down in sunlight and may also play a role.
• The Federal Drug Administration has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values higher than “50+.” The agency has written that values higher than 50 would be “misleading to the consumer.”
EWG’s Brown said consumers should also be wary when sunscreens advertise they are waterproof and sweatproof. According to the FDA, new marketing rules say “waterproof,” sweatproof” and “sunblock” can no longer be used by sunscreen manufacturers because the terms overstate the products’ effectiveness.
“No sunscreen is going to be waterproof and sweatproof,” Brown said, adding that the word “sunblock” is also no good because no chemical sun lotions can block sunlight from the skin.
“The only effective sunblocks would be to stay indoors or wear long-sleeved shirts made of tightly-woven material.”
People smart about sun damage are already smart enough to know hats and UV protective sunglasses offer some safety from the sun. Brown said there are other things people can do to improve the odds the sun won’t get under their skin.
“Try to stay in the shade whenever possible,” she said. “Bring an umbrella to the beach. Have a picnic under a tree instead of the middle of the beach. Keep infants in the shade. They don’t have the same melanin levels that adults to protect their skin.”
Sun protection must also be kept in mind during fall, winter and spring. And on days when the sun isn’t even visible. “If you’re outside, there are UV rays even on a cloudy day,” Brown said.