{sunscreen: safe or unsafe?}

Thursday, June 3, 2010



There has been a great deal of controversy recently concerning the safety of many sunscreens on the market thanks to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group. In this study, the EWG questions the efficacy of high SPF sunscreens and says that the retinol and retinyl palmitate (derivatives of vitamin A) found in many of them can actually promote cancer. They have advised consumers to avoid sunscreens with these ingredients and have come out with a list of 39 recommended sunscreens.

Note: This piece, which is my opinion, will address the EWG study rather than be a broad look at why we need sunscreen. I will not be discussing myths and facts about sunlight and vitamin D today, why tanning beds are so deadly, and other sun tips. More on those later.

Over the past several years, there has been a very active--and necessary--campaign convincing the public to wear sunscreen daily in order to prevent damage from the sun's UVA (skin aging) and UVB (skin burning) rays.

Wearing an effective sunscreen on a daily basis is something that can not only prevent burning, but it can help prevent skin cancer. Last year, the American Cancer Society said that over 1 million people would be diagnosed with skin cancer in 2009 alone. In addition to skin cancer, a majority of skin's premature aging and damage can be linked to sun exposure.

If you get an up close look at the skin of those who do not wear sunscreen or who go to tanning beds (please don't!), you most likely will notice brown spots, uneven texture and tone, more noticeable fine lines, and wrinkles. I know so many people equate a tan with good health. People will argue that having a tan will make you look thinner, younger, healthier, etc. A tan, though, is evidence of skin damage rather than good health. I am super fair. I burn very easily. Any natural "tan" I get comes a couple weeks after a painful sunburn. 

I am all for having a bronze glow. I don't want to put on shorts or my bathing suit and see porcelain legs anymore than most of you do. I wear sunscreen and any tan I have comes from a bottle of bronzer or self tanner.

OK--back to this study that is causing such a hoopla.

If you have been reading Chic & Green for any of the nearly 3 years I have been writing it, you will know where I stand on ingredients. I believe that the US lags way behind other nations when it comes to regulating ingredients used in skin care and cosmetics. There is little to no regulation. The EU is on the right track and has been for quite some time by restricting the use of countless harmful and potentially harmful ingredients. We need to jump on that bandwagon. 

When it comes to sunscreen and the FDA, though, sunscreen is treated differently by the FDA because it is considered a over the counter drug and has to undergo much more stringent testing. It's not like the complete lack of regulation present in cosmetics and other skin care. 

I believe wholeheartedly that people need to eliminate a great deal of the junk they put on their skin since so much of it gets absorbed. I also believe in being informed about what we use. I believe in exercising caution and I believe in taking a safe approach (like my feelings on parabens). Many people are critical of the Environmental Working Group and some of their research. More often than not, I agree with much of what they say. A time, though, I find their claims to be alarmist. In general, though, I believe that this non-profit agency wants to educate and protect people. 

When it comes to this study, however, I personally will rely on the years of research by several different agencies and institutions determining why the use of sunscreen in so important. I am not crazy about the FDA, quite frankly, but the American Academy of Dermatology, The Skin Cancer Foundation, American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control, and so many others in the health arena have urged the public to wear sunscreen and with good reason.

While I do believe that the FDA needs to devote many more resources in terms of time and funding to researching the ingredients in sunscreen more in depth, I really believe it would be very foolish to toss out the sunscreen just because of this study, which really does not have much merit. The study also shows no conclusive evidence, and according to Dr. Zoe Draelos, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology and a professor at Duke University School of Medicine, the EWG made "sweeping generalizations...their sunscreen recommendations are based on very old technology, and some of the best sunscreens on the market have newer chemicals that are much more effective. A lot of their opinions are not keeping pace with technology and an understanding of the science of these formulations. The nuances of sunscreens are very important." 


The Chic & Green Bottom Line

While I really respect much of the work that the EWG has done, I would not buy into their claims that sunscreen does more harm than good. While I continue to believe we need to choose more natural and less toxic ingredients for our skin, using sunscreen is very important.  I'll be frank with you. This study frightens me. Unlike many other studies with more research behind them, I am scared that people will stop wearing sunscreen and parents will stop putting it on their children. 

I really believe in my heart of hearts that wearing sunscreen is one of the single most important things we can do for our skin. There is too much evidence out there by unbiased and reputable medical professionals that advocates the importance of wearing sunscreen. I live in Upstate New York where it is cloudy for much of fall through spring. 

I wear my sunscreen even in January's cloudiest days.  Will I toss away my sunscreen? No. My daily moisturizer contains avobenzone (AKA Parsol 1789), which I really recommend for sun protection. Will I continue to slather my kids in sunscreen? Absolutely. Do I take great care when it comes to which sunscreen I choose for them? Of course. They've actually been using Jason Natural Sunbrellas, which is recommended by the EWG, for the past couple summers with good results.

Protecting ourselves from skin cancer is something we all can do by applying an effective sunscreen. It's simple, doesn't take much effort, and can help save not just our skin, but our lives.

I realize that my take on this may make some readers upset. I know many are completely anti FDA and do not agree with any recommendations by government-linked agencies. I am just sharing my personal thoughts on the study based on the information available to the public on this subject and my personal beliefs when it comes to this subject.

Disclaimer: All opinions on this subject are my own. Although I devote extensive time and research into each piece I write about skin care/health matters, all opinions are my own and are not to be substituted in any way for medical advice.
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