Is Your Sunscreen Safe?

Is sunscreen bad for your health? Here are a few concerns to be aware of – and how to make sure you stay safe in the sun this summer…

The start of summer is officially just around the corner, but before you head for the beach, don’t forget the sunscreen!

But wait…not so fast.

Before you slather on the SPF 50, you may want to consider just what it is you are putting on your skin.

While getting a sunburn is no fun – and also has been linked to skin aging and even skin cancer – in recent years, researchers have found that sunscreens themselves may be harmful to your health. According to an extensive study by the Environmental Working Group, 73% of the 880 sunscreens they tested either didn’t work as well as advertised, or contained ingredients that could be hazardous to your health.
Another report released last year by Consumer Reports found that out of 58 sunscreen products tested, 20 offered less SPF protection than what was advertised on the label.

SPF (sun protection factor) is a ratio of how long a person without sunscreen can be in the sun without experiencing any redness divided by the amount of time you can spend in sunlight with a product on. For example, if you were in extremely strong sunlight and it would take 1 minute for your skin to become red without any sunscreen, SPF 15 means you could stand the same sun exposure for 15 minutes before burning.

So that means you should just wear the highest SPF you can find, and you’re good, right?

Not necessarily. In fact, some experts warn against simply slathering on the high-SPF sunscreens, stating that you’re probably not getting the protection that you think you are. No matter what SPF you choose, you still need to re-apply every couple of hours, and be wary of labels claiming to be “waterproof” – there is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen! (The FDA has recently recommended that the term be removed from sunscreen labels, as it is misleading to consumers.)  Products between SPF 30 and SPF 50 should be more than adequate for most people. But remember you still need to apply every 2 hours if you’re in the sun, and immediately after sweating or being in the water.

You should also skip the spray-on sunscreens if possible, as these tend to provide more uneven coverage, and inhaling them could be harmful to your health.

There are several chemicals contained in many sunscreens that are of concern – and some may even cause skin cancer. According to one article:

In particular, EWG representatives say parents and consumers should use caution with two ingredients, oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.

…”Oxybenzone is a hormone disruptor that mimics body hormones and affects reproductive tract and other hormones.”

Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, has been the topic of years of debate and research. Some researchers have found it to be dangerous and say it may be linked to the development of skin tumors under direct UV light…

It is difficult to conclusively state which ingredients are truly harmful since few comprehensive studies have actually been done on these chemicals and how they interact with your skin when exposed to sunlight. According to the 2018 EWG report,

Some experts caution that the unintentional exposure to and toxicity of active ingredients erode the benefits of sunscreens. But most experts conclude that more sensitive tests are needed to determine whether sunscreen chemical ingredients pose risks to frequent users…

More study needs to be done before we can say for sure whether these chemicals are truly safe to use on your skin when out in the sun. As this year’s EWG report concluded:

EWG recommends that the FDA launch a more thorough investigation of the safety of all ingredients currently in sunscreens to ensure that none of them damage skin or cause other toxic effects in consumers.

In the meantime, it is up to you to protect yourself and your loved ones. Here are a few tips for staying safe outside this summer:

  • Stay out of the sun when possible during the mid-day (11:00 am – 4:00 pm) when the sun’s rays are the strongest. If you must be outside during these hours, cover up with long sleeves, a hat, and sunglasses. (And yes, you can even get sunburned when it’s cloudy.)
  • If you wear sunscreen, use one that contains zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide, which are physical blockers rather than chemical ones, and tend to be hypoallergenic.
  • Avoid sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate, as well as the other 4 common chemicals mentioned in the EWG report (Octinoxate or Octylmethoxycinnamate, Homosalate, Octisalate, and Octocrylene).

For a list of brands to look for (or to avoid), check out the EWG’s 2018 Sunscreen Guide to the best and worst Sunscreens, based on SPF protection, chemical ingredients, and overall safety and effectiveness.



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