Environmental connections to public health >>
Summer's here: What are you doing to protect your skin?
Every year the time comes to replenish the family sunscreen supply. And every year I wait until EWG's sunscreen guide is out so I can make the right choices without a lot of fuss. Good news then, that it's available in time for a trip to the beach this Memorial Day weekend.
Bad news, though, that so few sunscreens rate well. Thinking it's going to be the year of the hat and shirted beach play - along with a little planning to take cover from the sun's most potent mid-day rays.
You see, EWG's 4th annual Sunscreen Guide gives low marks to the current crop of sunscreen products, with (thankfully) a few notable exceptions. EWG researchers recommend only 39, or 8 percent, of 500 beach and sport sunscreens on the market this season.
Why so few recommendations? In all, EWG researchers assessed 1,400 sunscreen products, including beach and sports lotions, sprays and creams, moisturizers, make-up and lip balms. The 39 top beach and sports products that earned EWG's "green" rating all contain the minerals zinc or titanium. EWG researchers were unable find any non-mineral sunscreens that scored better than "yellow."
There are several reasons EWG recommends so few sunscreens this year. A surge in exaggerated SPF (Sun Protection Factor) claims (50+ SPFs) and recent developments in understanding the possible hazards of some sunscreen ingredients, in particular, new government data linking a form of vitamin A used in sunscreens to accelerated growth of skin tumors and lesions.
EWG has again flagged products with oxybenzone, a hormone-disrupting compound that penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. Biomonitoring surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have detected oxybenzone in the bodies of 97 percent of Americans tested.
Industry's lackluster performance and the federal Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) failure to issue regulations for sunscreens lead EWG to warn consumers not to depend on any sunscreen for primary protection from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Hats, clothing and shade are still the most reliable sun protection available.
What's wrong with high SPF?? Products with high SPF ratings sell a false sense of security because most people using them stay out in the sun longer, still get burned (which increases risk of skin cancer) and subject their skin to large amounts of UVA radiation, the type of sunlight that does not burn but is believed responsible for considerable skin damage and cancer. High SPF products, which protect against sunburn, often provide very little protection against UVA radiation.
Also, most people don't get the high SPF they pay for: people apply about a quarter of the recommended amount. In everyday practice, a product labeled SPF 100 really performs like SPF 3.2, an SPF 30 rating equates to a 2.3 and an SPF 15 translates to 2. EWG Senior VP for Research Jane Houlihan likens it to snake oil sales:
"Many sunscreens available in the U.S. may be the equivalent of modern-day snake oil, plying customers with claims of broad-spectrum protection but not providing it, while exposing people to potentially hazardous chemicals that can penetrate the skin into the body.
When only 8 percent of sunscreens rate high for safety and efficacy, it's clear that consumers concerned about protecting themselves and their families are left with few good options."
And now, a new concern: Vitamin A This year, new concerns are being raised about a vitamin A compound called retinyl palmitate, found in 41 percent of sunscreens. The FDA is investigating whether this chemical, when applied to skin that is then exposed to sunlight, may accelerate skin damage and elevate skin cancer risk.
FDA data suggest that vitamin A may be photo- carcinogenic, meaning that in the presence of the sun's ultraviolet rays, the compound and skin undergo complex biochemical changes resulting in cancer. The evidence against vitamin A is not conclusive, but as long as it is suspect, EWG recommends that consumers choose vitamin A-free sunscreens.
The FDA is taking t-o-o long to protect us Some blame falls on the FDA, which has yet to finalize regulations for sunscreens promised since 1978. FDA officials estimate that the regulations may be issued next October - but even then, they are expected to give manufacturers at least a year, and possibly longer, to comply with the new rules. That means the first federally regulated sunscreens won't go on store shelves before the summer of 2012. Houlihan gives some startling context:
"Both world wars, the creation of Medicare and the planning and execution of the moon landing combined took less time to achieve than FDA's promised sunscreen regulations.
Meanwhile, more than one million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. This could be the poster child for government inaction."
Protect yourself this summer. Here's how:
- Download our 1-page sun safety tip sheet, and
- Search our database to find the best sunscreen for your family - when you can't cover up or take the best cover - in the shade.