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Sunscreen Safety: SPF, UVA, UVB, Oxybenzone & Vitamin D

I avoid most conventional sunscreens. Recently, reports from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Consumer Reports have warned consumers against using many types of conventional sunscreens, especially on children. Some places have even gone as far as banning chemicals in certain formulations.

Why We Need to Look at Sunscreen Safety

Sunscreen use has risen in past decades, as media outlets and doctors tout its benefits for protecting against skin cancer, UV rays, and sunburn. The problem with this billion-dollar-a-year market: not all are created equal and recent reports reveal that some sunscreens may be harmful.

Also, while usage is on the rise… so are skin cancer rates. New reports suggest there may be a connection.

Here’s why:

There are two ways that a sunscreen can protect the skin from sun damage: with a mineral barrier or a chemical one.

Mineral Sunscreens…

Mineral options typically include ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which create a physical barrier to protect the skin from the sun. Dermatologists agree that when used correctly, mineral formulations can be effective and are safe even for children and sensitive skin.

They work by creating a physical layer of protection on the skin. Many options of mineral broad-spectrum sunscreen provide water-resistant protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Read labels carefully though, as not all do, and I still use protective clothing and hats to avoid excess exposure even with mineral sunscreen.

Chemical Sunscreens…

Chemical based protection uses one or more chemicals including oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.

My stance is if you can’t eat it, you shouldn’t put it on your skin. These chemicals raise some special concerns because many are able to cross into skin and other tissue.

With these chemicals, it is important to ask questions such as:

  • Will this cross the skin and get into other tissue in the body?

  • Does this chemical have the potential to disrupt hormones, especially in children?

  • Are there long-term or allergy reactions to these chemicals?

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

This new research by the EWG reveals that the chemicals commonly used in sunscreen may be endocrine disruptors, estrogenic and may interfere with thyroid and other hormone processes in the body.

The most common sunscreen chemical, oxybenzone, was found in 96% of the population by a recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This is especially alarming since oxybenzone is considered an endocrine disruptor, can reduce sperm count in men and may contribute to endometriosis in women.

The EWG warns against using oxybenzone, especially on children or pregnant/breastfeeding women.

Environmental Concerns & Coral Reef Damage

Environmental concerns also led Hawaii to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The ban cited these chemicals as harmful to coral reefs and ocean life. Other places have followed suit, including places like Key West in Florida.

This ban was based on studies showing that these chemicals can cause deformities, bleaching, DNA damage, and even death to coral reef. Coral reefs are important to the ocean ecosystem, so this problem has far-reaching consequences.

Lack of Testing

Of the 1,400+ sunscreens tested by the EWG, only 5% met their safety standards and over 40% were listed as potentially contributing to skin cancer.

One reason for this is that a vitamin A derivative, retinyl palmitate, that is often used in sunscreens was shown to speed up the growth of cancerous cells by 21%.

Spray options have become increasingly popular in recent years, but have additional dangers, especially if inhaled. Consumer Reports warns that spray sunscreens should not be used on children and that adults should exercise caution and make sure not to use on the face or inhale them.

Many also contain methylisothiazolinone, which the American Contact Dermatitis Society named as its “allergen of the year”.

The EWG’s most recent report listed Neutrogena as the #1 brand to avoid, citing high concentrations of oxybenzone and other hormone-disrupting chemicals, and misleading claims about their SPF levels.

Sunscreen May Increase Chance of Overexposure

The FDA also claims that higher sun protection factor values (SPF) are now shown to provide additional benefit. These higher numbers may also give a false sense of security, leading to longer (and less safe) exposure. For this reason, the FDA has recently proposed limiting SPF claims in sunscreen to 60. The EWG goes a step further, suggesting avoiding sunscreens higher than SPF 50.

Better Options in Europe

Like many aspects of our food supply… Europe has stricter standards for sun protection too. In fact, many US sunscreens are too weak to be sold in Europe and offer much less UVA protection. UVA doesn’t cause sunburn but can cause aging and may also be a factor in melanoma.

In short:

  • In Europe, there are four additional chemicals approved for UVA protection.

  • The FDA has not approved these options for use in the US, even though manufacturers have been waiting for years.

  • A 2015 evaluation found that US sunscreens allow, on average, three times more UVA rays to pass through to the skin than formulations in the EU.

  • Only about half of US formulations passed Europe’s more rigorous UVA standards.

Sunscreen Impact on Vitamin D

Every time I talk about this issue, I get a lot of comments about how serious skin cancer can be (I agree) and why it is reckless for me to suggest that people reconsider (conventional) sunscreen use (I disagree).

We’ve already established that some sunscreen is harmful and may do more harm than good, but another important consideration that is often ignored: vitamin D.

Many formulations completely block the body’s ability to manufacture vitamin D. Statistically, 75% of us are deficient in vitamin D and vitamin D deficiency has been linked to higher risk of cancer and heart disease (which kill more people than skin cancer per year).

We might literally be cutting off our noses to spite our faces when it comes to sun exposure. We lather up with chemical cocktails that have the potential to greatly increase skin cancer risk and reduce Vitamin D production in the name of avoiding skin cancer and increase our risk of more widespread diseases related to Vitamin D deficiency.

Important Note:

The topic of if sunscreen is harmful is a loaded one. To be clear, I am NOT saying that we shouldn’t exercise caution in exposure (especially overexposure) to the sun, however, as more and more evidence emerges about the dangers of many sunscreens and their potential to increase rates of skin cancer, it is important not to depend on sunscreens or think that regular sunscreen use decreases the risk of skin cancer. I personally turn to protective clothing or seek shade to avoid overexposure.

In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics reports that:

Sunscreens protect against sunburn, but there is no evidence that they protect against basal cell carcinoma or melanoma. Problems lie in the behavior of individuals who use sunscreens to stay out longer in the sun than they otherwise would. Vitamin D inhibition is, at this stage, unlikely due to insufficient use by individuals. Safety of sunscreens is a concern, and sunscreen companies have emotionally and inaccurately promoted the use of sunscreens.

Despite the push for more awareness about sun exposure, and the advice to use sunscreen whenever we go outside, incidence of skin cancer, especially melanoma, is rising dramatically.

In fact, skin cancer rates are rising by 4.2% annually, despite the fact that we spend less time outdoors and wear more sunscreen.

Common Ground: Mineral Sunscreen + Protection

Most sources and dermatologists agree that sunscreens with non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the active ingredients are a safe and effective way to prevent sunburn if used correctly. Many mineral options are also safer for sensitive skin and for children and don’t carry the same potential concerns as chemical sunscreens.

Some mineral sunscreens with these ingredients also contain some of the chemical ingredients above and have the same risks.

Additionally, if nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide are used, these can enter the body and carry risks as well. Since these offer physical barriers, it is also more difficult to accurately pinpoint the SPF of some mineral sunscreens.

Check for UVA and UVB Protection

Labeling can also sometimes be more confusing than helpful. Check the SPF to get an idea of UVB rating. This will tell you how well a particular sunscreen protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. This number is supposed to represent how many times longer a person can stay in the sun. In other words, if a person would normally burn in 5 minutes, an SPF 20 should extend this window to 100 minutes.

SPF does NOT specify UVA rating, so make sure to check this as well. A label should state the UVA protection or indicate broad spectrum or multi-spectrum coverage. Protective clothing is often more effective for UVA protection than sunscreen.

Homemade & Mineral Options

My homemade sunscreen uses non-nano zinc oxide but is not standardized or SPF tested. There are also some natural mineral sunscreens that the EWG lists as safe.

Best Mineral Sunscreens According to EWG:
  • Badger Mineral Sunscreen

  • Babyganics Sunscreen or spray

  • All Terrain KidSport SPF30 Oxybenzone-Free Natural Sunscreen

  • Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen

  • Bull Frog Sunscreen

  • Burt’s Bees Sunscreen Stick

  • California Baby Hypoallergenic Sunscreen

  • JASON Mineral Sunscreen

  • Naked Turtle Mineral Sunscreen with Aloe

  • Sunology Natural Sunscreen

  • Raw Elements Sunscreen

  • The Honest Company Sunscreen

  • Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen

Safest Sun Exposure: Cover Up

If sun exposure is a big concern or for those with a family history of skin cancers, the safest option is to avoid the sunscreens that the EWG has said might contribute to skin cancer and use the safest form of sun protection: covering up.

With all the information and misinformation about sunscreen out there, the easiest and safest way to avoid sun damage is to stay in the shade, wear a hat or long sleeves.

The recent research shows that certain chemical sunscreens may carry more of a risk than moderate sun exposure, so avoiding these sunscreens is also an important step.

Add Internal Sun Protection:

Another important step to protecting the skin from sun damage is supporting the body internally.

In short, it is important to avoid foods that increase inflammation, such as:

  • processed vegetable oils

  • processed grains

  • excess sugar

And to focus on foods and healthy fats that support skin health, including:

  • Vitamin D3 (I take about 5,000 IU/day)- Emerging evidence shows that optimizing blood levels of vitamin D can have a protective effect against sunburn and skin cancer

  • Vitamin C (I take about 2,000 mg/day)- A potent anti-inflammatory and it is good for the immune system too.

  • 1/4 cup coconut oil melted in a cup of herbal tea per day- the Medium Chain Fatty Acids and saturated fat are easily utilized by the body for new skin formation and are protective against burning

  • Astaxanthin– A highly potent antioxidant which research shows acts as an internal sunscreen. It’s also supposedly an anti-aging supplement. I don’t give this one to the kids though.

Bottom Line on Sunscreen Safety

It is important to be responsible with sun exposure, but many sunscreens offer a false security of sun protection and may do more harm than good.

The safest option is covering up and supporting skin health internally and externally. Mineral sunscreens (without nanoparticles or sunscreen chemicals) are also a good option, but for the most part, spray and chemical sunscreens should be avoided.

With the widespread availability of natural mineral sunscreens on the market now, please consider choosing safer sunscreens for your family.

*As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

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