Questions About Safe Sun Protection?
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70 and having 5 or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma. An estimated 90% of skin aging is caused by the sun. People who use sunscreen with an spf of 15 or higher each day show 24% less skin aging than those who do not use sunscreen daily.
Whether you’re worried about cancer or more concerned about the signs of aging skin, it’s clear that sunscreen is a must.
Still have questions? We’ve got you. First of all, always choose non toxic, right? And then check out these 10 Qs and As to learn more the whys and why nots of choosing and wearing sunscreen.
Why should I wear sunscreen year-round?
Although UV rays are stronger in the spring and summer, at higher elevations, and in the middle of the day, the sun is out all day long and UV rays can get through to the ground even on cloudy days and in chillier temperatures. And even if you don’t feel like you’re getting a sunburn, you may be getting sun damage.
Besides a sunburn, what kind of damage can the sun’s rays cause?
There are no safe UV rays. UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer, as well as premature aging of the skin and sun damage that causes wrinkles, leathery skin, dark spots, sagging, and more. (Click here for a variety of skin care products, including options that can help with anti-aging.) UV exposure can also cause eye problems, including the formation of cataracts (clouding of the eye’s lens) and inflamed or burned cornea.
What does SPF even mean?
SPF stands for sun protection factor. The SPF number relates to the level of protection against UVB rays, the main cause of sunburn. The American Cancer Society website explains:
“… when applying an SPF 30 sunscreen correctly, you get the equivalent of 1 minute of UVB rays for each 30 minutes you spend in the sun. So, 1 hour in the sun wearing SPF 30 sunscreen is the same as spending 2 minutes totally unprotected.”
Higher SPF numbers do provide more protection but not for a longer amount of time. It’s still necessary to reapply. And no sunscreen protects you completely. SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 filters out about 97%, SPF 50 about 98%, and SPF 100 about 99%.
What does broad spectrum mean?
Broad spectrum sunscreens have been tested and shown to protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
How do I apply sunscreen properly?
No matter what the SPF number, it’s critical that you apply sunscreen generously and often. About 1 ounce of sunscreen (about a shot glass full) should be used to cover arms, legs, neck, and face. Use more for any other areas not covered by clothing. Be sure to apply sunscreen to ears and the back of your neck, and use lip balm with sunscreen, too. Reapply at least every two hours, more when you sweat or swim and then towel off. Physical sunscreens (also known as mineral sunscreens) provide protection immediately, sitting on top of skin and reflecting UV rays before they can cause damage. Chemical sunscreens have to absorb into your skin to be effective and contain toxic chemicals that absorb the UV rays.
Why is a wide-brimmed hat so important?
The American Cancer Society suggests a hat with at least a 2-3-inch brim all around to protect your scalp as well as your eyes, ears, forehead, nose, and neck. Wearing a baseball cap won’t help your neck and ears, which is where skin cancers commonly develop, but a shade cap (basically a baseball cap with about 7 inches of fabric hanging from the sides and back) will be more helpful. A hat made of tightly-woven fabric is also suggested, as opposed to a straw hat.
What kind of sunglasses should I wear?
UV-blocking sunglasses will protect your eyes and the delicate skin around them. Ideally, your sunglasses should block 99-100% of UVA and UVB rays. “Cosmetic” sunglasses will only block about 70% of UV rays. To be sure you’re getting full protection, look for an ANSI label that states the glasses meet ANSI UV requirements.
Does clothing with UPF values help?
UPF stands for UV protection factor. Clothing labeled with UPF values can help protect your skin from UV rays. These clothes tend to be made with more tightly woven fabric and may have special coatings.
How can I protect my kids?
Children tend to spend more time outdoors and their skin burns more easily. Protect them just as you would adults and educate them about good sun protection habits. Apply sunscreen to yourself and your kids every time you plan to spend time outdoors, every day of the year. Also, ditch the toy sunglasses and get them real UV-blocking sunglasses instead. Please check product labels and consult your child’s physician for additional guidance.
Doesn’t sun exposure help our bodies make vitamin D?
Your skin does make vitamin D naturally when you’re in the sun and vitamin D has been shown to have many health benefits, including helping to lower risk for some cancers. However, sun exposure increases skin cancer risk, so it’s better to get vitamin D from your diet or vitamin supplements rather than sun exposure
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The trouble with ingredients in sunscreens
Sunscreen products are intended to be applied to the body every day, for a lifetime. The companies that make and sell sunscreen ingredients and products should test them thoroughly for potential short-term and long-term health effects. This includes toxicity testing for irritation and skin allergies, as well as testing for skin absorption and the potential to cause cancer, disrupt the hormone system and cause harm during reproduction and development.
In 2021, the Food and Drug Administration, which governs sunscreen safety, proposed its most recent updates to sunscreen regulations. It found that only two ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, could be classified as safe and effective, based on the currently available information.
Twelve other ingredients were proposed as not generally recognized as safe and effective due to insufficient data: avobenzone, cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, homosalate, meradimate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, padimate O, and sulisobenzone.
The FDA has required additional safety data because of health concerns and studies by the agency that show these ingredients can be absorbed through the skin. But in recent years, many studies have also raised concerns about endocrine-disrupting effects of three ingredients: homosalate, avobenzone and oxybenzone.
In 2021 the European Commission published preliminary opinions on the safety of three organic ultraviolet, or UV, filters, oxybenzone, homosalate and octocrylene. It found that two of them are not safe in the amounts at which they’re currently used. It proposed limiting concentration to 2.2 percent for oxybenzone and 1.4 percent for homosalate.
U.S. sunscreen manufacturers are legally allowed to use these two chemicals at concentrations up to 6 and 15 percent, respectively. Hundreds of sunscreens made in the U.S. use them at concentrations far above the European Commission’s recommendations.
The ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone are all systemically absorbed into the body after one use, according to the studies published by the FDA. The agency also found they could be detected on the skin and in the blood weeks after they had last been used.
Other studies have reported finding sunscreen ingredients in breast milk,urine and blood plasma samples. And it’s possible for sunscreen users to inhale ingredients in sunscreen sprays and ingest some of the ingredients they apply to their lips, so the ingredients must not be harmful to the lungs or internal organs.
This constant exposure to sunscreen chemicals raises concerns, especially because there is not enough safety data for most ingredients. We have even more concerns about ingredients such as oxybenzone, which many studies have linked to hormone disruption.
Active ingredient toxicity
This table outlines human exposure and hazard information for eight common FDA-approved sunscreen chemicals, often referred to as active ingredients because they provide UV protection. Sunscreen products typically include a combination of active ingredients, except for those formulated with zinc oxide.
The scince on ingredient toxicity
The most worrisome sunscreen active ingredient is oxybenzone, according to publicly available scientific research. It is readily absorbed through the skin and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found it in nearly all Americans, with higher levels in those who report applying sunscreen. It causes allergic skin reactions , behaves like a hormone disruptor in many studies and may cause more harm to children.
In an evaluation of CDC-collected exposure data for American children, researchers found that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone measurements had much lower total testosterone levels . Three other studies reported statistically significant associations between oxybenzone exposure during pregnancy and birth outcomes. One reported shorter pregnancy in women carrying male fetuses, two reported higher birth weights for baby boys and one found lower birth weights for baby girls. According to the latest proposed FDA sunscreens monograph, the agency needs further data to determine whether oxybenzone can be considered safe and effective, since: available literature … indicat[es] that oxybenzone is absorbed through the skin to a greater extent than previously understood and can lead to significant systemic exposure.… The significant systemic availability of oxybenzone … is a concern, among other reasons, because of questions raised in the published literature regarding the potential for endocrine activity.
Four studies published in 2020, after the FDA released its draft proposal, support previous findings that oxybenzone can act as an endocrine disruptor and may increase the risk of breast cancer and endometriosis. In addition, the National Toxicology Program found equivocal evidence of carcinogenicity in rats after observing increases in thyroid tumors and enlargement of the uterus in females with high exposure to oxybenzone.
Investigators at the University of California at Berkeley reported a dramatic drop in teen girls’ exposure to oxybenzone in cosmetics when they switched from their usual products to replacements that did not contain this chemical.
Recently, the European Commission found current human exposure levels to oxybenzone to be unsafe and proposed a concentration restriction of 2.2 percent – lower than the limited amount allowed in U.S. sunscreens, which is up to 6 percent. Several countries ban the sale of sunscreens that contain this ingredient, because it may harm aquatic life.
EWG recommends consumers avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone.
Octinoxate, or octyl methoxycinnamate
Octinoxate is an organic UV filter. It is readily absorbed into the skin and continues to be absorbed after the sunscreen has been applied. It has been found in blood samples 16 times above the proposed FDA safety threshold.
Animal studies have shown the chemical has hormone effects on the metabolic system and affects thyroid hormone production, with some evidence for other endocrine targets, including androgen and progesterone signaling. Octinoxate can also cause allergic reactions after the person who has applied it is exposed to ultraviolet light. Several countries ban the sale of sunscreens made with octinoxate, because they may harm aquatic life.
Homosalate is an organic UV filter widely used in U.S. sunscreens. The FDA has proposed that there is insufficient data to evaluate whether it is safe and effective to use in sunscreens. Homosalate has been found to penetrate the skin, disrupt hormones and produce toxic breakdown byproducts over time .
A recent opinion from the European Commission found that homosalate was not safe to use at concentrations up to 10 percent and recommended a maximum concentration of 1.4 percent, because of concerns for potential hormone disruption. The FDA allows U.S. sunscreen manufacturers to use it in concentrations up to 15 percent.
Octisalate, an organic UV filter, readily absorbs through the skin at levels 10 times more than 0.5 nanograms per milliliter, the FDA’s cutoff for systemic exposure. This cutoff is the maximum concentration that may be found in blood before there are potential safety concerns. The FDA has requested additional safety tests when a sunscreen is absorbed above this level.
The FDA 2019 proposed update suggests there is insufficient data to determine whether octisalate can be classified as safe and effective to use in sunscreens. A case report showed that the chemical has been linked to allergic contact dermatitis. Analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency suggests octisalate may have endocrine effects, weakly binding to the estrogen receptor.
Octocrylene readily absorbs through the skin at levels about 14 times the FDA cutoff for systemic exposure. But the agency suggested there is not enough data to determine whether it can be classified as safe and effective.
Octocrylene has been linked to aquatic toxicity, with the potential to harm coral health. It is often contaminated with benzophenone, which is known to cause cancer. According to one study, benzophenones levels can increase in products over time. The European Commission recently concluded that although there was some evidence of octocrylene’s hormone-disrupting potential, current use concentrations up to 10 percent were considered safe.
Avobenzone is a widely used organic filter that provides protection from UVA rays and is often used with other organic active ingredients in products offering broad spectrum protection.
Because avobenzone is not stable, it must be paired with other ingredients that act as stabilizers to prevent it from breaking down in the sun. Breakdown products of avobenzone have been shown to cause allergic reactions. Avobenzone can disrupt the endocrine system and has been shown to block the effects of testosterone in cellular studies.
In one study, avobenzone was detected on average in samples at levels nine times above the FDA’s cutoff for systemic exposure.
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide
Mineral sunscreens are made with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, usually in the form of nanoparticles. The FDA proposed that both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide be classified as safe and effective. Evidence suggests that few, if any, zinc or titanium particles penetrate the skin to reach living tissues.
Because of the potential of exposure through inhalation, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified titanium dioxide as possibly causing cancer in humans. For this reason, powdered or spray formulations containing titanium dioxide are a concern. Zinc oxide is also a cause for inhalation concerns when used in spray and powder products
In general, mineral sunscreens tend to rate better than chemical sunscreens in the EWG sunscreen database. But to reduce its response to sunlight, manufacturers use forms of minerals coated with inert chemicals. To lower the risks to sunscreen users and maximize these products’ sun protection, EWG supports stronger guidelines and restrictions on the types of zinc and titanium used in sunscreens, including nanoparticles, which we have analyzed in detail.
Other active ingredients
Mexoryl SX, an uncommon active ingredient in U.S. sunscreen, offers strong UVA protection. The FDA’s analysis showed there wasn’t enough data to classify the ingredient as safe and effective. Public research provides no evidence of hormone disruption and rare incidence of skin allergy.
Aminobenzoic acid, or PABA, and trolamine salicylate are active ingredients that are no longer commonly used in U.S. sunscreens. The FDA’s 2019 proposal concluded that the risks of these chemicals outweigh their benefits and proposed classifying them as unsafe.
The FDA should look closely at the so-called inactive ingredients in sunscreens, which typically make up half to 70 percent of a sunscreen. EWG recommends the FDA launch a thorough investigation of the safety of all sunscreen ingredients to ensure none of them damages skin or harms health in other ways.
Beware of benzene: Shining a light on sunscreen spray contamination
Many people believe the Food and Drug Administration will protect them from unsafe products. But the agency does not require companies to test their products for contamination. And its list of ingredients that are banned and restricted for use in cosmetics includes only nine substances out of the tens of thousands manufacturers may use.
Rather than rely on third parties to identify harmful products after they’re already on the market and widely used, the FDA must create safeguards that prevent contaminated or unsafe products from reaching consumers in the first place.
Although benzene is present in spray sunscreens, both the FDA and EWG recommend using other types of sun protection, such as lotions and creams. Our annual Guide to Sunscreens evaluates products based on a combination of ingredient hazard and efficacy ratings. Its rankings and recommendations are based on publicly available information, but information about contamination is mostly unavailable.
The benzene problem – unsafe at any level
Benzene is a sweet-smelling, petroleum-derived toxic chemical widely recognized as causing cancer and other serious health effects, with no safe level for human exposure.
The substance has been detected in sunscreen sprays, lotions and gel-based products, with the highest levels found in spray or aerosol sunscreens from several different brands. It’s unclear why these products are contaminated with this dangerous substance, but initial FDA reports suggest the source may be inactive petroleum-derived ingredients like thickening agents, spray propellants and antifungal preservatives.
Whatever the source, benzene does not belong in consumer products.
Many of the sunscreens with the highest levels of contamination have either been recalled or removed from store shelves, but this kind of reactive recall does not prevent harm to consumers who have already used these products.
The fact that benzene can end up in something as common as sunscreen– a product intended to be used daily for a lifetime – underscores the urgent need for the FDA to require manufacturers to test their products and verify they are free of harmful chemicals before the products reach store shelves.
Why benzene is bad
Benzene is a well-studied chemical, recognized as carcinogenic by regulatory bodies that include the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and International Agency for Research on Cancer, among others. The presence of benzene in aerosol sunscreens is especially concerning, because it can be both inhaled and absorbed through the skin.
Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause dizziness and headache and even be fatal if the level is high enough. Long-term exposure is known to cause serious health issues, including leukemia and anemia from reduced blood cell production.
FDA researchers found that active ingredients in most or all sunscreens are absorbed through the skin after just one application. And an in vitro study showed that benzene is absorbed at especially high rates when sunscreen is applied.
Although a 2022 letter to the editor using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, reported that sunscreen use is not associated with increased benzene concentrations in blood, the authors acknowledge multiple shortcomings of the data. Most notably, there was no data on the timing of sunscreen use relative to when participants’ blood was drawn.
Benzene levels decrease quickly in the body, so if the blood samples were not collected soon after the participants used sunscreen, the amount of benzene in the blood is unlikely to accurately reflect benzene exposure due to sunscreen use.
Given the recent sunscreen recalls due to benzene contamination, there is potential for benzene exposure from sunscreens.
The FDA’s failure to act
In May 2021, an independent laboratory published a chemical analysis of 294 batches of sunscreen and after-sun care products from 69 brands. According to the lab, 27 percent of the batches had detectable concentrations of benzene, which is restricted by the FDA for use in sunscreen products because of its “unacceptable toxicity.”
The lab petitioned the FDA to recall 78 contaminated batches of affected products, including 40 batches with urgency, due to contamination with especially high levels of benzene. The researchers also called on the agency to investigate the cause of contamination and establish protocols to prevent it in the future.
Among the 10 brands with highest concentrations of benzene in their products, only Aveeno, Neutrogena and Coppertone have issued recalls. CVS halted sales of two highly contaminated products but did not issue a recall. The remaining 11 brands with sunscreens contaminated by lower levels of benzene continue to sell their products.
In July 2021, Johnson & Johnson, which owns Aveeno and Neutrogena, issued a recall for specific aerosol sunscreens, even though it said daily exposure to their contaminated sunscreen “would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences.”
But Consumer Reports obtained an internal FDA health hazard evaluation in December 2021, a week before Johnson & Johnson’s recall, that reached a different conclusion. The report stated “life-threatening” health hazards and “permanent impairment of a body function” could be caused by use of the company’s contaminated sunscreens.
It’s not clear why the FDA withheld its internal evaluation from the public. The agency’s inability to identify contaminated products and effectively convey product safety information underscores the need for the agency to take preemptive measures rather than rely on third parties and manufacturers to report contamination.
Tips to keep your family safe
Benzene contamination of some sunscreens should not discourage anyone from wearing sunscreen altogether. When selecting a product:
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