Sunscreen Safety: More Harm Than Good by Dr Karly Powell

Sunscreen Safety: More Harm Than Good? 

Protecting our skin from the sun’s damaging rays is important, especially in the summer months. In addition to increasing the risk of skin cancers and premature aging, excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays can cause eye damage (including cataracts) and suppress the immune system. The typical chemically-based sunscreen may, however, be doing more harm than good for your skin health.

Understanding UV rays and cancer risk

Both ultraviolet (UV) A and UVB rays can cause cancer. UVA penetrates into the deeper layers of the skin and is responsible for the tanning effect after sun exposure. Although UVA rays are less intense than UVB’s, UVA rays are 30-50 times more prevalent and are present in equal intensity during all daylight hours and throughout the year. UVB rays are primarily responsible for sunburns, so most sunscreens protect only against UVB.  Similarly, glass blocks out UVB but not UVA; for these reasons, you may still suffer the damaging effects of UVA even in the absence of sunburn.

Sunscreen safety

While we’ve all been taught the importance of wearing sunscreen to protect against burns, many of us our just swapping one damaging agent for another.  A recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group showed that 80% of available sunscreens either do not provide adequate sun protection or contain harmful ingredients. These guidelines will help you maximize the benefits of your skin care products while avoiding toxins:

  1. Avoid harmful ingredients:  The biggest offenders to watch out for are oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, which were found in more than have of conventional sunscreens.

Oxybenzone is an active ingredient in many sunscreens that is readily absorbed through the skin and can accumulate in the body.  A hormone disruptor, this estrogen-like chemical has been linked to endometriosis and other reproductive diseases in women, as well as severe allergic skin reactions and heart disease.

Retinyl palmitate is a form of Vitamin A that has been linked to skin cancer – yes, the exact thing sunscreen is used to prevent!  While generally thought to be safe for topical use, retinyl palmitate can actually accelerate skin damage and cancer formation on sun-exposed skin. It is also a strong reproductive toxin in large doses, and it is unknown whether a toxic dose could potentially be achieved by topical use only. Because of these risks, this substance has been banned from use in cosmetics in several countries.

Check out this helpful smart phone App from the Environmental Working Group.  It allows you to scan barcodes of skincare products to learn about hidden carcinogens and chemicals and product safety ratings.

  1. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen: These products will product from both UVA and UVB rays.  This will ensure you are protected from sunburn as well as the hidden damage that can lead to skin aging and cancer.
  1. Avoid SPF greater than 50: Studies suggest that beyond SPF 50, higher SPF ratings do not confer a greater level of protection from damaging UV rays.  In fact, people who use these high SPF sunscreens are likely to experience a false sense of protection, spend excessive time in the sun, and end up with greater skin damage compared to those who moderate their sun exposure.

Your sunscreen should, however, be at least SPF 15 to protect you from damaging rays; SPF 2-14 has not been shown to provide significant protection from skin damage during sun exposure.

Sunscreen alternatives 

The best way to protect your skin is to moderate sun exposure, especially from 10am-2pm when UVB rays are at their peak.  If you are going to be in direct sun for longer than a 15-20 minute period, consider covering with tight-knit clothing, or look for an SPF rating on thinner athletic wear.  For topical sunscreens, look for a zinc oxide base without nanoparticles (“non-nano”).  My favorite products are the Badger brand sunscreens (available locally at Natural Grocers) or DeVita Solar Body Moisturizer.

Bottom line:  Moderate sun exposure is the best option to gain benefits (like adequate Vitamin D production) while reducing your risk.  For extended exposure, choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF rating between 15-50.

Contact us today for more advice on safe skin care products and prevention and treatment of skin diseases.