How Safe is Your Sunscreen?
Dust off your boats, boots and bikes because summer and
sunshine are just around the corner. That means it’s also time to
stock up on sunscreen. Kris Somol, ND, clinical faculty member
at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, takes a fresh look at the
importance of sun protection and the safety of sunscreens on
Should people in the Northwest be concerned about sun exposure?
According Dr. Somol, here in the cloudy Northwest, the rate
of melanoma is actually higher than the national average.
Cumulative sun exposure is the biggest contributing factor in the
development of skin cancer, but other factors can come into play
as well. Dr. Somol explains that behaviors that create free radicals
in the body and promote oxidative stress – such as poor diet, low
activity or smoking – can make you more susceptible to damage
from the sun. Use of tanning beds, especially before the age of
35, can increase your skin-cancer risk later in life by 250 percent.
On the other hand, a diet rich in antioxidants – including plenty
of colorful fruits and vegetables – can help you lower your risk
of skin cancer. “Eating a diet high in orange and red carotenoids
seems to be protective against skin cancer,” notes Dr. Somol.
Does sunscreen reduce cancer risk?
Using sun protection is crucial for reducing the risk of certain
skin cancers, but Dr. Somol recommends reading ingredient
labels carefully when choosing a product. “Some sunscreens
may actually promote the development of cancer because they
contain chemicals that lead to increased free radicals,” she
reports. The most common culprit is oxybenzone, found in
roughly 42 percent of sunscreens. Oxybenzone causes allergic
skin reactions and hormone disruption and is likely to actually
increase your risk of skin cancer. (Consult the table below for
other common sunscreen ingredients to avoid.)
Which sunscreen ingredients are safer?
Seek out sunscreens that include zinc oxide or titanium
dioxide. Products containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
provide about 20 percent better UV protection than other
sunscreens. Plus, products with these safer ingredients generally
contain fewer of the harmful ingredients listed in the table. Zinc
oxide and titanium dioxide are now available in nanoparticle form
and these products will protect your skin without the telltale
opaque white appearance. Dr. Somol is careful to note however,
that consumers should avoid aerosol versions of zinc and
titanium products because they can be harmful if inhaled.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a vast and
detailed database of sunscreen ratings on its website: www.ewg.org.
How can you stay vigilant against skin cancer?
Monitor your own skin for changes and make sure your annual
medical exam includes a check for skin changes. Make an
appointment with a naturopathic physician.
Source: Environmental Working Group
||Hormone disruptor. Releases reactive oxygen (may cause cancer). Allergic reactions. Estrogen-like effects.
||9% (significant amount) absorbed into bloodstream. Found in 42% of sunscreens.
|Estrogen-like effects. Disrupts thyroid activity and brain signaling in animal testing. Easily absorbed into the skin
||Most commonly used ingredient. Hypoallergenic.
||Forms toxic byproducts. Weak hormone disruptor.
Ensulizole (phenyl-benzimidazole sulfonic acid)
||Causes formation of free radicals (may cause cancer).|
Padamate O (octyl dimethyl PABA / PABA ester
||Causes formation of free radicals (may cause cancer). Allergic reactions. Estrogen-like effects.
Methyl anthranilate||Unstable when exposed to sunlight. Causes formation of free radicals (may cause cancer).
||Banned in Europe.|
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Healthy and Wise, the Bastyr Center newsletter.