Sunscreen: Friend or Foe?

If it weren’t for scientists warning the public decades ago abut ozone-depleting chemicals — and politicians (including Reagan) acting in the national and global interest — the world’s beach-going experience might be very different now (see “Lest We Forget Montreal” and “What would Reagan do about climate change?“).

Now it’s the start of the big beach weekend, and many of us will soon begin slathering on the sunscreen to protect ourselves from harmful rays.  But how effective and safe is that sunscreen from your local drugstore?  CAP has the answer:

Most of us were told as children to put on sunscreen before we went outside in the summertime. But some studies question how well typical sunscreens work. An Environmental Working Group, or EWG, study in 2009 analyzed 1,796 name-brand sunscreens and found that only 7 percent block both UVA and UVB radiation, remain stable in sunlight, and contain few ingredients with known or suspected health hazards.

The study also claimed that some sunscreen ingredients are absorbed by the blood and linked to toxic effects. These ingredients could release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight or disrupt hormone systems, and several are strongly linked to allergic reactions, while others may build up in the body or the environment. EWG also blasts the Food and Drug Administration for dragging its feet over establishing safety standards for sunscreens.

A 2006 study from the University of California-Riverside also suggested that certain sunscreen ingredients may cause more free radicals to form. Free radicals disrupt cell functioning and are believed to lead to many cancers.

Other studies look at sunscreen’s environmental effects. A 2007 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that at even very low levels of sunscreens can cause coral bleaching by killing zooxanthellae, the algae that form a symbiotic relationship with corals. The study’s authors calculated that close to 10 percent of the world’s reefs could be at risk from the 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen that wash off on an annual basis.

Some organizations, however, are not as quick to sound the alarm on sunscreen. The Skin Cancer Foundation assures consumers that sunscreen products are safe and effective when used as directed. They recommend using sunscreen with a sun protection factor or SPF of 15 or higher as part of a “complete sun protection regimen” that includes seeking the shade and covering up with clothing. They are also highly critical of the Environmental Working Group study and are concerned it will scare consumers away from sunscreen.

We need to protect ourselves from the sun regardless of studies and claims. The sun’s ultraviolet radiation is clearly linked to skin cancer, and we’ve all experienced a sunburn at one time or another from heading outside with no protection. But those who wish to avoid the potentially harmful effects cited in the above studies can seek greener options that work.

Sunscreens containing zinc dioxide or titanium dioxide, for example, are alternatives to those with chemicals such as cinnamate or benzophenone, which were called out in the Environmental Health Perspectives study. Zinc and titanium are minerals that provide broad-spectrum coverage and reflect both UVA and UVB rays. Combining these with clean, nontoxic ingredients such as shea butter, beeswax, unrefined oils, green tea, and chamomile can also nourish and protect skin.

When shopping for a sunscreen also consider avoiding ones with harsher chemical preservatives such as parabens (including butylparaben and methylparaben), which have mixed health reviews. Instead, look for sun products without preservatives or those with milder preservatives such as potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate.

Finally, consider buying sun protective clothing you can wear in the water and on the beach. And seek the shade whenever possible, especially between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. You can also see your physician every year for a professional skin exam.

Summertime quickly turns into playtime, and taking precautions against the sun can ensure that a bad sunburn doesn’t spoil your fun.

JR:  Another key point is that, as the NYT reported last year:

Studies have found that by blocking ultraviolet rays, sunscreen limits the vitamin D we produce. But the question is to what extent.A few studies have concluded that the effect is significant “” a reduction as great as tenfold. But more recent, randomized studies that followed people for months and in some cases years suggest that the effect is negligible. While sunscreen does hamper vitamin D production, these studies say, it is not enough to cause a deficiency.

That is in part because most people typically do not apply enough sunscreen to get its full effects, which in turn allows some sunlight through….  And according to the National Institutes of Health, it does not take much sunlight to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D: perhaps as little as 30 minutes of daytime exposure (without sunscreen) twice a week.

Dr. Lim added that rather than cutting back on sunscreen, people concerned about vitamin D should consume more foods rich in vitamin D, like salmon, milk and orange juice.

Ah, but what about children?  The Environmental Working Group reported last year:

Researchers from a major medical center in New York have reported that 7 out of 10 U.S. children have low levels of vitamin D, placing them at higher risk for bone disorders, heart disease, and other health problems (Kumar 2009).Children’s major source of vitamin D is sunshine. The UV rays from the sun trigger the skin to make the vitamin. Smaller amounts are found in cod liver oil, vitamin-D-fortified milk, orange juice, and other foods. Vitamin D can also be found in supplements.

The researchers analyzed vitamin D levels in over 6,000 children who participated in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2001-2004. They found that children at highest risk for vitamin D deficiency include those who are obese or who spend more than 4 hours daily in front of the TV, computer or video game system.

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) failure to establish workable sunscreen standards are a contributing factor to children’s vitamin D deficiencies and resulting health risks. FDA has not yet finalized sunscreen standards it drafted in 1978 [read more]. Currently, the agency:

  • Advises children to stay out of the sun from 10 am to 4 pm.
  • Allows sunscreens that block only UVB rays (indicated by the SPF rating), the form of sunlight the body uses to manufacture vitamin D.
  • Has failed to finalize UVA standards for sunscreen, the form of sunlight strongly linked to skin cancer.

In contrast, standards in the EU, Japan and Australia require that sunscreens protect the skin from damaging UVA rays.  And in contrast to FDA’s blanket advice to stay out of the sun and always use sunscreen, the American Medical Association recommends 10 minutes of sun exposure before applying sunscreen, to give skin time to make vitamin D (AMA 2008).

Insufficient amounts of vitamin D are believed to play a role in the development of heart disease, some immune disorders, diabetes, and even the flu, while excess UVA exposures contribute to skin cancer and skin aging.

“FDA’s foot dragging over permanent sunscreen safety standards puts the health of the country’s children in jeopardy,” said Jane Houlihan, Senior Vice President for Research at Environmental Working Group (EWG).

18 Responses to Sunscreen: Friend or Foe?

  1. Prokaryotes says:

    Studies indicate that methylparaben applied on the skin reacts with UVB leading to increased skin aging and DNA damage

    Just trashed 1 shower gel “sensitive” and 2 shampoo’s.

  2. Prokaryotes says:

    “They recommend using sunscreen with a sun protection factor or SPF of 15 or higher as part of a “complete sun protection regimen””

    More on SPF

    – Sun Protection Factor or SPF is an attempt to measure of UVB protection. And, in theory, the higher the number, the greater the protection. SPF is NOT intended to be a measurement of how long you can stay in the sun and be protected.

    The problem with SPF is that while SPF does measure UVB protection, the differences between the degree of protection offered by higher SPFs is not as great as suggested by the actual numbers. For example, SPF of 15 filters out about 93 percent of the UVB rays while SPF 30 filters about 97 percent of UVB rays. So the UVB protection is not doubled as suggested by the SPF rating. The difference is only four percent. Similarly, SPF 50 blocks 98 percent of UVB, one percent more protection than SPF 30. And, SPF of 100 blocks 99 percent of UVB, providing one percent more protection than SPF 50.

    A second, and in our opinion equally troublesome aspect of SPF as it relates to consumer expectations, is that while experts caution against using SPF as the basis for determining how much time you can spend in the sun, time without burning is the basis for deriving SPF.

  3. catman306 says:

    VIdeo claims that BP is dumping clean sand over oily beaches at Grand Is. LA. An entirely different kind of screen to protect that oil from the sun.

  4. Peter Bellin says:

    Another problem with many sunscreens is the allergic reaction some people have, ranging from dermal effects to more severe effects in some people

    My daughter reacts to sunscreen in the form of an itchy rash. If we can find a zinc or titanium oxide product, without the chemical additives, she may not have this reaction. (For some reason, I am having trouble finding such products.)

    Just another potential problem with the use of modern sunscreen products.

    Also a potential issue is the use of nanomaterials in susncreen products. These are new forms of older substances (with respect to their physical formulation) that are not well tested, if at all. The nanoparticles may behave differently than the traditional formualtions, we do not really know – but I remember reading that sunscreens are selling nanotechnology as a superior product.

  5. paulm says:

    tits a pity, it does provide a good excuse to rub someones back.

  6. Icarus says:

    The use of sun lotion (or ‘sunscreen’) has been increasing for many decades, and the rate of skin cancer has also been increasing for many decades. This is despite fewer and fewer people having jobs which involve being outdoors all day.

    The conclusion is obvious, it seems to me: Sun lotion causes skin cancer.

    To the best of my knowledge, no manufacturers of sun lotion claim that their products reduce your risk of skin cancer, because there is no evidence that they do. They all claim to reduce sunburn, which indeed they do, but sunburn is caused by UVB, whereas long-term skin damage (which can lead to cancer) is mainly caused by UVA, which does not cause reddening or pain and is not blocked effectively by many sun lotions. So, people slap on the sunscreen and go out on the beach for hours on end, thinking that because they’re not getting sunburnt they must be protected from cancer too, whereas in fact they’re getting massively over-exposed to UV radiation and thereby *increasing* their risk of getting skin cancer. Without sun lotion, people would limit their exposure, knowing that otherwise they would get sunburnt. The sun lotion gives them a false sense of security.

    It’s an interesting fact that people with naturally dark skin (i.e. with higher concentrations of melanin) rarely get skin cancer, and when they do, it’s usually on the paler skin on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.

    So here’s another seemingly obvious conclusion: The best sun protection of all is a good natural tan, acquired in the safest way – i.e. by being in the sun just long enough to build up a tan gradually, without burning.

    The claim that “tanned skin is damaged skin”, although well-intentioned, is actually misleading – tanned skin is *protected* skin, and you don’t have to remember to slap it on from a bottle every time you go out. Skin cancer specialists will tell you that it’s much safer to spend (say) 30 minutes in the sun with no sun lotion than 3 hours in the sun with SPF 6 lotion, despite them being supposedly equivalent exposure according to the SPF rating.

    In summary: To minimise your risk of skin cancer, don’t use sun lotion at all. Get a tan safely with modest exposure to the sun, seek shade or cover up the rest of the time, and never get sunburnt.

  7. Brooks Bridges says:

    My understanding is that melanoma, the deadly form of skin cancer, is highly correlated with childhood sunburns (and what adult avoided that?), not sun experienced as an adult. The less much less dangerous forms of skin cancer are correlated with current sun exposure. My doctor said my thinning skin was all over my body and not correlated with sun exposure.

  8. Richard Brenne says:

    Icarus (#6) – If anyone would know about getting a little too much sun, it’s a guy named Icarus. Excellent, common-sense advice that has been my intuition my entire life.

    I love the sun when I’m cold, clothed and in moderation, but roasting flesh has never been my thing. Hats, collars, zip-on pant legs and long sleeves, even umbrellas work great if I’m getting too much sun. I’m a shade junkie, even moving back home from sunny Boulder to cloudier and tree-ier Portland in part to get more. I’d rather bike in the rain than 90 degree sun any day, and do.

    I coached ski racers for 10 seasons at a very sunny Colorado ski area, but always with a helmet and goggles, often a balaclava beneath the helmet when it was cold, and developed a tan lower face every season.

    Hats are so much better than sunscreen on the forehead, which will invariably sweat into your eyes or your child’s (depending on who you put the sunscreen on).

    That famous columnist commencement speech years ago about “Wear sunscreen. . .” and whatever was stupid advice then (You mean to tell me that of all the things to tell high school graduates, that’s the most important? Was the columnist named Coppertone?) and now.

    PaulM (#5) – Your always excellent advice appears to have been influenced this time by perhaps gazing at the post’s picture a little too long.

    If our fossil fuel emissions cause Earth to experience Jim Hansen’s runaway greenhouse Venus syndrome (not his responsibility entirely, but the syndrome he warns about) to that planet’s 850 degrees Fahrenheit, the recommendation would be for sunscreen with SPF 15000000.

  9. Icarus says:

    Richard: Nicely said. I like a bit of sunshine on my skin but if there’s a better place to be on a hot sunny day than sitting in the shade of a tree, I’d like to hear about it.

  10. Giove says:

    Icarus (#9) My favorite is swimming in the sea, calm deep fresh and dark blue, looking towards high white cliffs interspersed with green bushes and trees… but the shade of a tree is a very good option too :)

  11. Matt says:

    Living in Australia and being endowed with red hair and freckles – my skins pitiful attempt to produce melanin – I’ll ignore the advice from non-experts and side with my dermatologist. Clothing, hat and broad spectrum sunscreen, even in winter, and definitely no tanning.

  12. Prokaryotes says:

    When it comes to sunscreens, most consumers are concerned about SPF, brand and price. Typically, they do not turn the bottles around to check out what, exactly, they are slathering on their skin, maybe because they’d be confronted with words such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, diethylexyl, triethanolamine and a host of other ingredients unpronounceable to anyone who works outside a lab.


    Triethanolamine is used primarily as an emulsifier and surfactant. It also serves as a pH balancer in many different cosmetic products – ranging from cleansing creams and milks, skin lotions, eye gels, moisturizers, shampoos, shaving foams etc. TEA is a fairly strong base: a 1% solution has a pH of approximately 10, whereas the pH of skin is below pH 7. Cleansing milk/cream emulsions based on TEA are particularly good at removing makeup. Because of its high alkalinity and the possibility that it converts to nitrosamines, its use in cosmetics was once expected to diminish. It is still widely used as of 2009.

    A 2009 study found that TEA has potential acute, sub-chronic and chronic toxicity properties in respect to aquatic species

  13. Richard Brenne says:

    Matt (#11) – That sounds good for you. Presumably a good dermatologist like yours would be looking at these latest studies as well. Some of the commenters here keeping up with the latest studies appear as expert or more expert than some dermatologists about the complexities of sunscreen. One has to wonder how many doctors of all types follow the advice of the industries that most support their specialties without the questioning we see among these commenters.

    History’s greatest snowboarder Shaun White is called “The Flying Tomato” because of his red hair and freckles, and spends as much time in as highly reflective an environment (snow) as just about anyone. You might have noticed that under his helmet and goggles he wears a bandana covering his face, in fact it’s kind of his trademark. Without changing he can also rob banks, just as his fellow Olympian biathletes cross-country ski and shoot to rob convenience stores.

    I’ve backpacked in the sunny Sierra Nevada at elevations up to 14,495 feet, often on snow and essentially outside without a tent for 10 days at a time. I’m always moving in the sun and resting in the shade, meaning it’s kind of the opposite of sun-bathing, which I haven’t done since I was a misguided teenager and found that even a little bit of sun appeared to addle my brain. Now I can just listen to any Republican for that.

    Also I’ve used salmon, milk and orange juice as recommended above, but didn’t find rubbing them on my ski as helpful as I’d hoped.

  14. Die Zauberflotist says:

    As a general rule, throw away products containing chemicals that end in: zone, mine, ate, aben and exyl. Get yourself a biodegradable umbrella or consider a burka. You never see a Muslim woman with melanoma.

  15. Matt says:

    Richard – that’s not just good for me, it’s essential. I burn to the stage of peeling in less than ten minutes during summer. I’m not disparaging the work done by anyone, indeed, the nano problem has received quite a bit of publicity here in the last year or two.

    I’m not sure what information is available on nano-particle sunscreens in other countries but if you’re in Australia there is a “safe sunscreen guide” (from Friends of the Earth) available below.

  16. Prokaryotes says:

    14#, “As a general rule, throw away products containing chemicals that end in: zone, mine, ate, aben and exyl.”

    Studies indicate that methylparaben applied on the skin reacts with UVB leading to increased skin aging and DNA damage

    [..] concerns over possible carcinogenicity or estrogenic effects being expressed over the continued use of parabens as preservatives.

    Checking all the household chemicals, turns out t be a very unpleasant discovery.

  17. Richard Brenne says:

    Die Zauberflotist (#14, and I’m just re-stating your chosen name, not issuing an inappropriate command) – “As a general rule, throw away all products containing chemicals that end in: zone, mine, ate, aben and exyl.”

    I took your advice and threw away all my zonemineateabenexyl.

    Just a stupid joke – the comments here at Climate Progress are always awesome, the above especially so.

  18. Anonymous says:

    im scared what should i do now?