Melanoma is scary. In 2015 an estimated 76,000 people were diagnosed with melanoma, and 9,700 Americans died from it.
Sun exposure appears to play a role in melanoma yet what you might not know is that the ethology behind skin cancer is more complex than we have been lead to believe. 
A 2011 article in the JABFM (Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine) states “though a number of studies show that the use of sunscreen can reduce the risk of squamous cell carcinoma, sunscreen use was found to be less effective in reducing the risk of basal cell carcinoma”.
So what is a health conscious consumer to do? This post will shed some light on both the pro’s and the con’s of sunscreens as we seek to reduce our risk of melanoma.
How safe are sunscreens?
Many sun protection products have strange sounding, hard to pronounce names. And, since anything we put on our skin goes right into our bodies it’s prudent to pay close attention to what’s in all of our health and beauty products – including sunscreens. Scanning the ingredients list of many sunscreens it can be difficult to know what exactly some of the contents are. This is important because some of the the ingredients commonly used in sunscreens have been in the news because they just might not be so safe.
Here area few of the more common ingredients and concerns about their safety.
- Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight (NTP 2012). Officials in Germany and Norway have cautioned that retinyl palmitate and other vitamin A ingredients in cosmetics could contribute to vitamin A toxicity due to excessive exposure (German BfR 2014, Norwegian SCFS 2012a).
~ While vitamin A is an anti-oxidant the study raised a concern that it may speed the growth of cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.
Certain ingredients used in either type of sunscreens (chemical or mineral) can act as an endocrine (hormone) disruptor.
- Oxybenzone acts as an estrogen and has been found to impact sperm production in animals and endometriosis in women.
- Homosalate disrupts estrogen, androgen and progesterone.
- Methylisothiazolinone, or MI, a preservative is highly allergenic and used in many sunscreens.
And there are concerns about mineral based product ingredients as well.
But I use a “natural” sunscreen you say…
A recent Consumer Reports test portrayed non chemical based sunscreens in a very poor light. “…we have, over the years, tested several “natural” sunscreens, and in our analysis of four years of our sunscreen testing data, we found that just 26 percent of the ones in our tests met their SPF claim. In contrast, 58 percent of chemical sunscreens did. Consumer Reports goes on to say… “Even among the ones that did meet their SPF claim, no product with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide or both as the only active ingredients, received higher than an overall Good Rating in our tests. If you want a sunscreen without chemicals, consider Cotz Plus SPF 58, *****which was the top-scoring “natural” sunscreen in our tests—delivering an SPF of 38 and Very Good UVA protection—or California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+, which met its SPF claim and received a Good Rating for UVA and UVB protection.
~***** Note: the EWG (Environmental Working Group) states an important concern about SPF’s over 50 . Very high SPF’s may encourage being in the sun too long and may not actually be any more protective in terms of sun damage than those with an SPF 30 or 40 rating. In addition, high SPF products require higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals than low SPF sunscreens. Some of these ingredients may pose health risks when they penetrate the skin, where they have been linked to tissue damage and potential hormone disruption. Some may trigger allergic skin reactions so if you are chemical sensitive you’ll need to consider this carefully. 
To understand why the mineral based sunscreens didn’t score very well in terms of efficacy in Consumer Reports test you need to understand how sunscreens work. Sunscreens need to form a uniform film on the skin, and even though most mineral products contain micronized titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both, they’re still particles—so they don’t create as smooth or uniform surface as the chemical based products. Plus, in order to minimize the chalky look manufactures will often reduce their amounts which can impact effectiveness.
Consumer Reports advises that if you can’t find one of their recommended sunscreens, you choose a combination product (not one with just titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide) with an SPF of 40 or higher. From their years of testing Consumer Reports believes the data shows that you’ll be more likely to get at least an SPF 30.
How to find better “safer” sunscreen options
According to Environmental Working Groups Guide to Sunscreens there are a number of safer and effective options. You can see their 2016 list and ratings here and decide for yourself if combination chemical / mineral based products seem right for you.
In general stay away from
- Spray Sunscreens
- Super-High SPFs
- Oxybenzone and Other Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
- Retinyl Palmitate
- Combined Sunscreen/Bug Repellents
- Sunscreen towelettes or powders
- Tanning Oils
Here are some other ways to protect against sun damaged skin and have a safe sun experience
- Plan activities outdoors when the sun is not at its highest and UV rays are not as intense. The sun is less intense and less likely to cause skin damage in the early morning or later in the evening. ~ This is a strategy I have used because I am very leery of using chemical based products on my body due to their toxic load on the liver. (see: How to mend a sick liver & Ten signals your liver needs to detox)
- Try clothing that is made with built in UV protection. This is a good option for those who must work outdoors in the sun.
- Wear a wide brimmed hat that has built in UV protection when working in the yard , walking or doing other outdoor actives.
- Wear good UV rated sunglasses to protect your eyes.
- Enjoy the beach under an umbrella.
- Find some shade and avoid lying out in the sun! Do not bake yourself to a golden brown!
- Don’t get sunburned.
- Do check any precautions on your medications. Many do have warnings about the combination and sun exposure increasing your risk of sunburn.
- And when using sunscreen don’t forget to reapply as directed. Most products need re-application every couple hours. This is especially true if you are in water or doing an activity where you are perspiring profusely.
As a final note, according to EWG’s website European sunscreens allow consumers more choices than those produced in the US. In Europe sunscreen formulations can be developed using 27 chemicals, including seven, which offer strong protection against UVA radiation.
Some of these chemicals appear to offer significant performance advantages over the 17 sunscreen chemicals the federal Food and Drug Administration permits in products sold on the American market. Between 2004 and 2010 American manufactures applied for FDA permission to use eight sun-filtering chemicals developed by European companies.
As of this posing the FDA has failed to respond to these applications.
On the brighter side, congress did pass the Sunscreen Innovation Act, and it was signed by President Obama last November. This act requires the FDA to review new applications for sunscreen active ingredients within 300 days.
However as of this posting the FDA had informed the companies involved that they had not submitted enough information to prove that their chemicals were, in fact, safe and effective for use in sunscreens (FDA 2015a).
~ Clearly we can do better!
If you are concerned about how well your body is handling it’s toxic load or struggling with your health I can help! Contact me for a brief phone conversation to learn more here: Are we a fit?
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