Some of us are old enough to remember when the idea of having a tan was a sign of health, when billboards and magazine ads featured the Coppertone girl showing off her tan while a puppy pulls down her bathing suit bottom. Shopping for sunscreen, the highest sun protection factor (SPF) found on the shelves was 4. If you were lucky you might find an 8. Since then we have learned of the dangers that come from exposure to the sun’s rays, especially ultraviolet A and B. So today, drugstore shelves are crammed with sunscreens boasting SPF of 30, 45, 80 and even higher.
On April 8, 2011, the FDA National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Arkansas released the results of a study that had concluded 10 years prior. This study revealed a few surprising concerns. The first concern is in regards to the SPF. The FDA reports that those numbers are often meaningless and dangerous because products with high SPF ratings sell a false sense of security, encouraging people using them to stay out in the sun longer. Actually, an earlier FDA study from 2007 published proposed regulations that would prohibit manufacturers from labeling sunscreens with a sun protection factor higher than “SPF 50”. The agency wrote that higher values would be “inherently misleading”, given that “there is no assurance that the specific values themselves are in fact truthful”.
The next finding from the recent study and, quite frankly the most alarming finding of the FDA study released on April 8, is that Vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol and retinyl palmitate, may speed up the cancer that sunscreen is used to prevent. “Tumors and lesions developed up to 30% faster in lab animals coated in a Vitamin-A laced cream than animals treated with a vitamin-free cream” the report said. The antioxidant additive of Vitamin A that is used to slow skin cancer, again, causes cancerous tumors when exposed to light.
Based on the strength of these findings by the FDA’s own scientists, many in the public health community say that they cannot believe or understand why the agency hasn’t already notified the public of this possible danger. The senior vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says that there was enough evidence 10 years ago for the FDA to “caution consumers against the use of Vitamin A in sunscreens”.
So what are we to do? Educate yourself on sunscreens. There is a fantastic Sunscreen Guide website developed by the Environmental Working Group and updated annually. They help you understand the benefits and harmful side effects of a mineral sunscreen (titanium dioxide, zinc oxide) and non-mineral sunscreen (chemicals). There is no sunscreen that is 100% effective against the potentially harmful effects of excessive UVA/UVB radiation. But this website has thousands of sunscreens and they are all ranked for safety and effectiveness. I found it to be very helpful.
Below is a list of helpful guidelines for keeping your skin healthy:
- Generously apply a broad base spectrum UVA/UVB protection sunscreen of no more than SPF 50 with titanium (if you want to block out UVA rays).
- Wear protective clothing.
- Seek shade between 10 am – 4 pm.
- Avoid tanning beds.
- Sunscreens need to be applied 30 minutes before exposure and re-applied after activities or after an hour in sunlight.
In conclusion, unfortunately, there are no 100% safe ways to protect yourself against the harmful effects of the sunlight in one product. Ask yourself what is important for you and your family in a sunscreen, find a product that matches your needs, then go to the EWG website and locate that product. You may need to make a difficult decision, but at least it will be an educated one.