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).