The Oxybenzone Factor

Burns are bad. Are sunscreen chemicals better?

Everyone knows that spending too much time in the sun can cause nasty sunburns — as well as age our skin prematurely and promote skin cancer. On the other hand, spending some time in the sun can be good for us, delivering vitamin D and making us more cheerful.

The answer is sunscreen, right?

Maybe. As Americans become more aware of skin cancer, and our doctors warn us to always put on sunscreen before we venture outside, there is growing concern that some of the chemicals in popular brands may be bad for our health.

sun_sidebar_3According to the EWG Sunscreen Guide for 2015 — an annual report by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group that tracks ingredients in 1,700 products — eight out of 10 products contain “worrisome” ingredients. The worst of these are oxybenzone and octinoxate, sunscreen filters that have been shown to disrupt hormones and the endocrine system in experiments with animals. Another is retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that has been linked to skin damage.

The problem with these and other chemicals in sunscreens is that they soak into the skin, with potential long-term consequences that are far from understood. The alternative is sunblock, which uses white metallic oxide and goes on like war paint.

sun_sidebar_4“There are two types of sunscreen, those that stay on the surface and block, and those that are absorbed in the skin,” said Miami dermatologist Dr. Deborah Longwill. “My vote is for the sunblocks that have titanium or zinc oxide, which stay on the skin and are not absorbed.”

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Most consumers avoid these surface blockers, however, because they make you look like a crazed beach clown or a Japanese kabuki dancer. Most opt for a sunscreen you can rub into your skin.

sun_sidebar_1The controversy is whether chemicals absorbed from sunscreens will do any long-term harm. There is certainly no doubt these chemicals are entering our systems — a random study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 10 years ago found oxybenzone in 97 percent of the urine samples of older children and adults. Yet evidence of their toxicity — damaging reproductive systems and internal organs, contributing to cancer — has only been demonstrated in animals, and with high doses. As of yet there is no clinical evidence that these chemicals harm humans.

“These conditions develop so slowly that proving causality will require years of medical studies,” Longwill said. “In the meantime these chemicals are now being found in mother’s milk. That can’t be good.”

sun_thumbOther dermatologists aren’t as concerned — or see the choice as the lesser of two evils. Skin cancer from sun exposure is a medical reality, whereas harm from sunscreens is not.

“There aren’t a whole host of ingredients out there that will give us a solid protective screen,” said Dr. Joel Schlessinger, an Omaha dermatologist and editor of Practical Dermatology. “If we dismiss [chemical sunscreens] because of experiments done on non-humans or under unusual situations, we risk more by dismissing what exists [to protect us]…. It’s exposure to chemicals that are slightly concerning versus exposure to sun that is guaranteed to cause problems.”

What we need, say dermatologists and public advocacy groups, are newer and more effective sunscreen ingredients. The FDA has not expanded its list of approved sunscreen ingredients since 1999, despite the legal use of many new ingredients in Europe and just about everywhere else. The FDA’s official response to these criticisms is that it is “proceeding as quickly as practicable given available review resources and competing public health responsibilities.”

So what’s a mother to do? First, bathe those babies in white zinc oxides while they are still young enough not to care about making a fashion statement. Most of the damage that leads to skin cancer later in life occurs during our youth, so this is the perfect time for lots of protection.

The best protection from UVA rays — the real cause of skin cancer — is zinc oxide, followed by titanium oxide. Some manufacturers are trying to reduce the glaring white appearance of their product by producing ‘nano-particle’ solutions. Because the particles are smaller the sun block is more ‘transparent,’ but it also doesn’t protect as well.

If you are worried about the absorbable chemicals in standard sunscreens, try to stay away from the products with the heaviest concentrations. They promise protection greater than SPF 30. The vast majority of dermatologists will tell you that anything more than 30 is meaningless, since an SPF of 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays. The amount of chemicals needed to take the SPF higher just isn’t worth the risk. So avoid products by Banana Boat, CVS, Coppertone and Neutrogena that offer protections of SPF 70, SPR 85 and SPF 100.

Finally, avoid sunscreen sprays, especially around children, since inhaling sunscreen chemicals is definitely bad for you.

“So little is known about sunscreen at this point that what we are using currently [may not be] protecting [us] enough and may be potentially replaceable by significantly better sunscreen agents in the future,” Schlessinger said. “We just need the FDA to come to its senses.”

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