Friday, June 13, 2014

Some Toxic Sunscreen Chemicals and Safer Options

"The study focused on avobenzone, the most popular sun-blocker in the world. It is used in lipsticks, creams, moisturizers and other cosmetics because of its ability to absorb damaging UV rays. But the Russian researchers found it breaks down in chlorinated water. Two of the chemicals produced — acetyl benzenes and phenols — are particularly toxic. The reaction usually happened on the swimmers’ wet skin, the researchers noted. They also fear there is a further risk if the water contains copper salts, put in pools to make them look blue. Sunscreen can then break down into a substance linked to liver and kidney problems and nervous system disorders."
Every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases their annual guide to sunscreens,1 and this year's data again shows that you must be very cautious when choosing sunscreen to apply to your skin. Two-thirds of the sunscreens analyzed by EWG did not work well or contained potentially hazardous ingredients. This included many of the most popular brands on the market.

If you use sunscreen purchased from a drug store, grocery store, or discount chain, there's a high chance your sunscreen is on EWG's worst sunscreens list. So do yourself (and your kids) a favor by getting up to speed which sunscreens are safe, and which are toxic, before slathering up again.

EWG Releases Toxic Sunscreens' List

Top-selling sunscreen brands including Neutrogena, Rite Aid, Walgreens "Well" brand, "Up and Up" brand from Target, and Coppertone were among those that made the most toxic list. Most contained the following three "red flag" ingredients. If you see them listed on the label of your sunscreen, throw it away and choose another:

1. Oxybenzone
This is one of the most troublesome ingredients found in the majority of sunscreens. Its primary function is to absorb ultraviolet light. However, oxybenzone is also believed to cause hormone disruptions and cell damage that may provoke cancer. According to EWG:2
"…the chemical oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body. It can trigger allergic reactions. Data are preliminary, but studies have found a link between higher concentrations of oxybenzone and health harms.
One study has linked oxybenzone to endometriosis in older women; another found that women with higher levels of oxybenzone during pregnancy had lower birth weight daughters."
2. Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A palmitate)
Sunscreen products may actually increase the speed at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer because they contain vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol, and retinyl palmitate.
The problem occurs when this form of vitamin A is exposed to the sun (as opposed to when it is used in night cream, for example), which is why sunscreens that contain it should be avoided.
3. Fragrance
I caution against using personal care products that contain synthetic fragrance, as this term describes any number of harmful chemicals that do not have to be listed individually on the label. Some common "fragrance" chemicals include:
  • Parabens: Synthetic preservatives known to interfere with hormone production and release.
  • Phthalates: Another synthetic preservative that's carcinogenic and linked to reproductive effects (decreased sperm counts, early breast development, and birth defects) and liver and kidney damage.
  • Synthetic musks: These are linked to hormone disruption and are thought to persist and accumulate in breast milk, body fat, umbilical cord blood, and the environment.

How to Choose a Safer Sunscreen

The sunscreens featured in EWG's best sunscreens' list do not contain the three toxic ingredients listed above. In lieu of the skin-penetrating hormone-disrupting chemicals like oxybenzone, the safer sunscreens tended to use non-nanoparticle sized zinc- and titanium-based mineral ingredients, which block the sun's rays without penetrating your skin. Additionally, here's what to look for when choosing a safer sunscreen:3
  • Avoid Spray Sunscreens: These are incredibly popular, especially for kids, but the convenience comes at a price. When the sunscreen is sprayed, toxic particles are released into the air, making them easy to breathe in, with unknown health effects.
  • Spray-on sunscreens may also contain flammable ingredients, and there have been reports in which a person wearing the sunscreen received serious burns from coming close to an open flame.4
  • Avoid Super-High SPFs: Higher SPF sunscreens (SPF 50+) are not intrinsically harmful. However, there's evidence that the higher protection level gives people a misleading sense of security, encouraging them to stay in the sun longer than they should. In reality, research suggests that people using high-SPF sunscreens get the same or similar exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays as those using lower-SPF products.
  • Avoid Sunscreen Towelettes or Powders: These offer dubious sun protection and the powder poses a risk of lung irritation if you inhale it.
  • Protects Against Both UVA and UVB Rays: SPF only protects against UVB rays, which are the rays within the ultraviolet spectrum that allow your body to produce vitamin D in your skin.
  • But the most dangerous rays, in terms of causing skin damage and cancer, are the UVA rays. This is why you always want to make sure any sunscreen you buy protects against UVA as well as UVB.

How Can You Determine if Your Sunscreen Offers UVA Protection?

For many years, sunscreens only screened out UVB rays. More recently, as the risks of UVA have been established, sunscreens have also started to filter out UVA. However, while all sunscreens protect against UVB, only some protect against UVA – and in the US, it's difficult to determine which offer adequate protection and which do not. Even a sunscreen that claims to be "broad spectrum" may not provide adequate UVA protection. As EWG reported:5
"After a 34-year process of reviewing sunscreen safety and efficacy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has implemented enforceable rules on sunscreen marketing and UVA protection. The FDA allows American sunscreen makers to claim their products are 'broad spectrum,' even though many offer much poorer UVA protection than sunscreens sold in other countries.
Based on the products in our 2014 database, EWG estimates that about half of all beach and sport sunscreens could not be sold in Europe because they provide inadequate UVA protection… Also still legal under the new FDA rules are products with sky-high SPFs that prevent sunburn but leave users at risk of UVA-related skin damage."

For now, in the US, there's no way to measure a sunscreen's ability to protect you from UVA just by reading the label (the way you can gauge UVB protection using the SPF). However, look for a sunscreen that contains the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. UVA is divided into two wave ranges, UVA1, which measures 340-400 nanometers (nm, or billionths of a meter), and UVA2, which measures from 320-340 nanometers.

Titanium dioxide is a physical filter for UVB and UVA2, while zinc oxide is effective against UVB and both ranges of UVA (UVA1 and UVA2).6 

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