Do you depend on sunscreen for skin protection? Millions of Americans do, but they shouldn’t rely on it alone. The rate of melanoma diagnosis is increasing. The consensus among scientists is that sunscreens alone cannot reverse this trend. Yet a good sunscreen can play a role in preventing sunburns – a major risk factor for melanoma – provided you use it correctly.
Sunscreen should be just one tool in your toolbox. These eight little-known facts about sunscreens will help you spot problem products and avoid getting burned.
1. There’s no proof sunscreens alone prevent most skin cancer
Rates of melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – have tripled over the past 35 years. Most scientists and public health agencies – including the Food and Drug Administration itself – have found little evidence that the use of sunscreens in isolation from other sun protective measures prevent most types of skin cancer. Read more.
2. Don’t be fooled by a high sun protection factor
Products with high sun protection factor, or SPF, tempt people to apply too little sunscreen and stay in the sun too long. The FDA has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values greater than 60+ and have called higher SPF values “inherently misleading,” but the agency has not yet issued a regulation that carries the force of law. Read more.
3. The common sunscreen additive vitamin A may speed the development of skin cancer
Retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant that combats skin aging. But studies by federal government scientists indicate that it may trigger development of skin tumors and lesions when used on skin in the presence of sunlight. Other governments warn that cosmetics may contribute to unsafe amounts of vitamin A, and recommend against using vitamin A-laden cosmetics on the lips and large portions of the body. Yet the sunscreen industry continues to add vitamin A to beach and sport sunscreens and other products with SPF.
EWG recommends consumers avoid sunscreens, lip products and skin lotions that contain vitamin A or retinyl palmitate, also called retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol. Read more.
4. European sunscreens provide better UVA protection
Nearly every sunscreen sold in the U.S. claims to offer “broad spectrum” protection, which suggests they shield against harmful UVA rays. But many products are too weak to be sold in Europe, where standards are higher. In Europe, sunscreen makers can formulate their products with four chemicals that offer stronger protection from UVA rays. American manufacturers have been waiting for years for FDA approval to use these sunscreen ingredients. The FDA has asked for more safety data, but until the FDA approves these ingredients and lifts restrictions on combining certain active ingredients, Americans will not be able to buy sunscreens with the strongest UVA protection. Read more.
5. Sunscreen doesn’t protect skin from all types of sun damage
SPF measures protection from sunburn, but not other types of skin damage. The sun’s ultraviolet rays also generate free radicals that damage DNA and skin cells, accelerate skin aging and may cause skin cancer. American sunscreens can reduce these damages but not as effectively as they prevent sunburn. People can run into problems if they pick a sunscreen with poor UVA protection, apply too little or reapply it infrequently. Sunscreen companies commonly add SPF boosters that inhibit sunburn but may not protect from other damages. The FDA should strengthen its regulations to ensure that sunscreens offer the best possible skin protection. Read more.
6. Some sunscreen ingredients disrupt hormones and cause skin allergies.
Sunscreen is designed to be applied to large portions of the body, several times per day. Sunscreen ingredients soak through skin and can be detected in human blood, urine and even breast milk. Several commonly used ingredients appear to block or mimic hormones, and others cause allergic reactions on sensitive skin. The FDA’s sunscreen rules grandfathered in sunscreen active ingredients that were already on the market. The agency has never reviewed evidence of ill effects of all ingredients used in sunscreens. Read more.
7. Mineral sunscreens contain nanoparticles
Most zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based sunscreens contain nanoparticles one-twentieth the width of a human hair, to reduce or eliminate the chalky white tint that larger particles leave on the skin. On the basis of the available information, EWG gives a favorable rating to mineral ingredients in sunscreens, but the FDA should restrict the use of unstable or UV-reactive forms of minerals that would lessen skin protection. Read more.
8. If you avoid sun, check your vitamin D levels
Sunshine causes the body to produce vitamin D, a critical function that sunscreen appears to inhibit. Vitamin D, technically a hormone, strengthens bones and the immune system and reduces risks of breast, colon, kidney and ovarian cancers, and perhaps other disorders.
About 25 percent of Americans have borderline low levels of vitamin D, and 8 percent have a serious deficiency. Breastfed infants, people with darker skin and people who have limited sun exposure are at greatest risk of vitamin D deficiency. Many people can’t or shouldn’t rely on the sun for vitamin D. Check with your doctor to find out whether you should be tested for deficiency or should take seasonal or year-round supplements. Read more.