This topic is highly debated and frequently discussed, particularly among parents trying to make the best sunscreen decision for their families, so I jumped at the chance to have my friend and fellow native Hoosier, Professor Ruth, spend some time on the topic for this issue of Sensible Science. ~Laura
Three years ago, I was closely following the FDA’s progress toward revamping sunscreen regulations because I knew it would be a great story to share at the Chemistry summer camp I teach, and because my first child was going to be spending more time in the sun. A big thing that I do during summer camp is teach students how to read ingredient labels, so I was also researching the active ingredients in sunscreens.
When I got an email through my playgroup mailing list about the Environmental Working Group’s list of sunscreens for that summer, I sighed…
I had already found a lot of faults in their information. Some was misleading from a scientific perspective (they did not distinguish between the burning UVB rays and aging UVA rays), and some of it was outright lies about the regulatory process.
Every spring, it never fails… Someone with my email address or a friend on Facebook will share the newest EWG sunscreen list (you can see it here). The EWG has since cleaned up its website to remove much of the fear-mongering, but its rationale for choosing the “best” sunscreens hasn’t changed much. Here’s why I’m still not that concerned about the list.
- The FDA isn’t out to get you. I will admit that three decades to update sunscreen regulation seems a bit excessive, but I also like to think that our analytical testing and ingredients have improved a lot during that time, too, which allowed it to make more sensible regulations. And to anyone who says that the FDA is slow about everything, let’s just remember thalidomide. It was never approved in the United States in the 1960s because FDA scientists started reading about cases of its horrific side effects and gave pause, saving us from that tragedy. That case changed the way we approve drugs and devices for the better.
- Toxicity. EWG bases their toxicity ratings on multiple databases that they have combined into their Skin Deep database. They are not very clear about it beyond that. Toxicity depends on both dose (how much) and delivery (how it enters the body). Most studies are done in rats to add to the haziness of applying these ratings to humans. It can be a stretch to say something is toxic when applied topically in moderation to human skin when all the data we have is from injections or feedings of the same chemical in massive doses in another animal.
- Free radicals. I saw concerns about free radicals over and over on a previous version of their website. There are two types of sunscreen chemicals, inorganic (like titanium and zinc oxides) and organic (like oxybenzone and homosalate). The organic chemicals work by absorbing UV light and letting its energy slosh around their electrons. Enough of this sloshing causes them to degrade and form free radicals. Big deal! I can wash the sunscreen off at the end of the day, and if I didn’t wear it, the sun would be making free radicals out of my skin (that I could not wash off!).
- Estrogenic effects. This is a more touchy subject. The premise is that some organic sunscreens have structures that make them look like hormones to the body. The big leap is figuring out exactly how much of these chemicals make it into your bloodstream and exactly how they interact with your body. I personally think their benefit outweighs the risk under normal use, but someone with fertility problems or a history of breast cancer might think twice for themselves. To put it in perspective, the FDA allows up to 6% oxybenzone in sunscreens, less than the EU and Australia at 10%. The only time I wouldn’t wear sunscreen containing these ingredients is if I were snorkeling near a coral reef, as they have been linked to reef bleaching (check with the local conservation groups before you go to see which sunscreens they recommend).
- Vitamin D. This is another touchy subject, and everyone needs to consider their own health needs to assess the sunscreen risk/benefit ratio for them. I will admit that I have not used sunscreen yet this year. You see, I broke my arm this winter and my surgeon asked me to take vitamin D supplements. Then my nursing baby started showing signs of food allergy and our family doctor asked me to stop taking all supplements and milk. Knowing the importance of vitamin D to my healing and my baby’s health, I have opted to get us out for a daily walk at non-peak sun times to get our vitamin D. The freckles are coming on fast, though, so I just bought some facial sunscreen. I promise I’ll start using it tomorrow.
- The list doesn’t account for personal sensitivities. I could write another post about how my blood boils when I see something titled “Ingredients to Avoid!” Every time you make a rating system or tell someone not to use a particular ingredient, you assume they have the same ethics, morals, culture, environmental concerns, allergies, sensitivities, and preferences that you do. And they don’t.
- Sunscreen doesn’t work if you don’t wear it. It’s as simple as that. Some people don’t like the greasy feeling of one. Others always sweat a particular brand into their eyes. Personal preference plays a huge role, and we should consider ourselves lucky to have so many options. There’s no excuse to not wear sunscreen because there is one out there for you!
- Sunscreen is only part of sun safety. Happily, EWG and the FDA are on the same page with most of their tips. Managing your time and how you dress outdoors can make a huge difference.
So, go out and be good about your sun safety. EWG’s version of perfect might not be a perfect fit for all of us, but we can agree to be smart about the time we do spend in the sun.
Ruth is a part time adjunct instructor of chemistry and full time mother of two. She embraces the good-not-perfect lifestyle as she balances family food allergies, great local food, a healthy sense of skepticism, and her scientific background. This will be her fourth summer teaching a camp for high school students on the chemistry of consumer products, and she co-wrote the upcoming book Understanding Chemistry Through Cars with her husband Geoff. The book will be published by Taylor and Francis in November 2014. You can follow the book’s progress and participate in the conversation on the Chemistry of Cars website or by following the @CarChemProf on Twitter.
If you have any other chemistry or biology related questions we should address in future Sensible Science posts, please drop us a note!