Sunscreen Concerns

by Ms. S on August 24, 2010

Recent Sunscreen Controversy: Hot Topics


Sunscreen: Does Yours Protect Against Both UVB and UVA Rays? Many Do Not.

Many U.S. sunscreens claim to provide “broad spectrum” protection that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, but the reality is that they don’t. Hawaiian Tropic Baby Creme Lotion SPF 50 lists “Advanced UVA protection” on its website and “UVB/SPF with UVA” on its label. But it would earn only 1 star in FDA’s proposed 4 star UVA labeling scheme, according to EWG analysis using a standard industry sunscreen model.

Sunlight consists of two types of harmful rays: ultraviolet A (UVA) rays and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. UVA rays (which pass through window glass) penetrate deeper into the dermis, the thickest layer of the skin. UVA rays can cause suppression of the immune system, which interferes with the immune system’s ability to protect you against the development and spread of skin cancer. UVA exposure also is known to lead to signs of premature aging of the skin such as wrinkling and age spots. The UVB rays are the sun’s burning rays (which are blocked by window glass) and are the primary cause of sunburn. A good way to remember it is that UVA rays are the aging rays and UVB rays are the burning rays. Excessive exposure to both forms of UV rays can lead to the development of skin cancer.

– American Academy of Dermatology; Facts About Sunscreen

SPF stands for sun protection factor. Sunscreens are rated or classified by the strength of their SPF. The SPF numbers on the packaging can range from as low as 2 to greater than 50. These numbers refer to the product’s ability to deflect the sun’s burning rays (UVB).

The SPF number on sunscreens only reflects the product’s screening ability for UVB rays. At present, there is no FDA-approved rating system that identifies UVA protection. Scientists are working to create a standardized testing system to measure UVA protection.

– American Academy of Dermatology; Facts About Sunscreen

After reviewing the evidence, EWG determined that mineral sunscreens have the best safety profile of today’s choices. They are stable in sunlight and do not appear to penetrate the skin. They offer UVA protection, which is sorely lacking in most of today’s sunscreen products.

– Environmental Working Group: Sunscreens Exposed, 9 Surprising Truths

Vitamin A

There’s recent evidence telling us that vitamin A and the sun’s rays may increase the growth rate of cancer cells!

From the website of the Environmental Working Group:

Recently available data from an FDA study indicate that a form of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions (NTP 2009). This evidence is troubling because the sunscreen industry adds vitamin A to 41 percent of all sunscreens.


Vitamin D Deficiency

This past summer, when Gwyneth Paltrow wrote about her serious vitamin D deficiency in her newsletter, GOOP, the media then highlighted this prevalent issue even more.

Vitamin D is essential for many processes in the body, including maintaining healthy bones and a strong immune system and protection from cancer. In epidemiological studies, low vitamin D levels have been associated with increases in cardiovascular mortality, colon cancer mortality and breast cancer risk and tentatively linked to skin cancer, metabolic disease, hypertension and obesity (Adams 2010; Grant 2009; Tang 2010).

Yet over the last two decades, vitamin D levels in the U.S. population have been decreasing steadily, creating a growing epidemic of vitamin D insufficiency (Ginde 2009a). Seven of 10 children in the U.S. have low levels of vitamin D. Of those, nine percent have a serious deficiency and 61 percent have higher but still insufficient levels (Kumar 2009). Mirroring this national deficiency, 70 percent of breastfed babies are vitamin D deficient at 1 month of age (Wagner 2010), when such a deficiency can be particularly harmful because of vitamin D’s role in growth and development.

Sunscreen use combined with too little outdoor time contributes to vitamin D deficiencies, but experts disagree on whether short amounts of time in the sun or supplements are the best way to help a person deficient in vitamin D.

Expert opinions vary on the best way to address vitamin D deficiencies. The American Medical Association has recommended that everyone get 10 to 15 minutes of direct sun (without sunscreen) several times a week, an amount sufficient for adequate vitamin D production (AMA 2008, Brender 2005). The American Academy of Dermatology expressed a different opinion in its 2009 Position Statement that “there is no scientifically validated, safe threshold level of UV exposure from the sun that allows for maximal vitamin D synthesis without increasing skin cancer risk.” The Academy recommends increased intake of foods naturally rich in vitamin D, vitamin D-fortified foods and vitamin D supplements (AAD 2009)… Researchers concluded that “without high dietary (or supplemental) intake of vitamin D, some sun exposure is essential to avoid diseases of vitamin D insufficiency” (Lucas 2008).

– Environmental Working Group; Getting Enough Vitamin D


Concerns About Certain Chemicals in Sunscreen

There’s skin cancer concerns, and then there are concerns over some of the chemicals found in sunscreen.

Sunscreen makers offer mineral and non-mineral formulations, as well as products that combine both mineral and non-mineral active ingredients. Mineral formulations incorporate zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in nano- and micro-sized particles that can be toxic if they penetrate the skin. Most studies show that these ingredients do not penetrate through skin to the bloodstream, but research continues. These constitute one in five sunscreens on the market in 2010 and offer strong UVA protection that is rare in non-mineral sunscreens.

The most common ingredients in non-mineral sunscreens are oxybenzone, octisalate and avobenzone, found in 60, 58, and 50 percent of all sunscreens on the market, respectively. The most common, oxybenzone, can trigger allergic reactions, is a potential hormone disruptor and penetrates the skin in relatively large amounts. Some experts caution that it should not be used on children. Three of every five sunscreens rated by EWG are non-mineral, and one in five sunscreens combines both mineral and non-mineral active ingredients.

EWG reviewed the scientific literature on hazards and efficacy (UVB and UVA protection) for all active ingredients approved in the U.S. Though no ingredient is without hazard or perfectly effective, on balance our ratings tend to favor mineral sunscreens because of their low capacity to penetrate the skin and the superior UVA protection they offer.

– Environmental Working Group: Nanomaterials and Hormone Disruptors in Sunscreen

Avoid Loose Powder Sunscreen.

Loose powder sunscreens can enter the airways and may move from the lungs to the bloodstream. Health concerns include cancer and tissue damage.

These sunscreens are in a loose powder form. The particles of zinc and titanium they contain can offer strong UV protection for the skin, but they end up in the lungs, too, inhaled from a cloud of airborne particles with each use. There, they can cause damage. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies inhaled titanium dioxide as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on studies of rats and of people who work in dusty environments (IARC 2006).

Once in the lungs, the minerals may move into the bloodstream and throughout the body. In 2008 a research group based in China reported that nanoscale titanium dioxide like that used in many sunscreens can accumulate in the brain and cause lesions and other tissue damage (Wang 2008). Nano and micronized zinc oxide cause lung inflammation (Sayes 2007).

– Environmental Working Group; “Hall of Shame: What’s Wrong With the Sunscreen Protection Business?

Much more can be found on the following websites:

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