Did you know that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US? In fact, the number of Americans diagnosed with skin cancer is higher than the number diagnosed with all other cancers combined and the rates continue to rise. Research has shown that sun exposure is the number one modifiable risk factor for this potentially deadly and disfiguring disease. Sun exposure also has been shown to cause premature skin wrinkling and aging. So it is no wonder that Americans are using sunscreen to provide skin protection more frequently and in larger amounts than ever before. Sunscreen additives, also known as UV filters, are commonly added to moisturizing face and body lotions and lipsticks, so many of us are being exposed to sunscreen chemicals unintentionally and on a daily basis.
But are these UV filters safe? Recent and emerging research has found that there is a reason for concern. UV filters, commonly used in sunscreen, have been found to cause allergic reactions and easily penetrate the skin and permeate into blood, urine, amniotic fluid, and breast milk. Once they are inside our bodies they can act as endocrine disruptors, chemicals that mimic our natural hormones, and potentially cause developmental problems, decreased sex hormone levels, lower sperm counts, and may even cause the very type of disease they are meant to protect us from, cancer.
So what is the safest way to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of excessive sun exposure? This article will help you learn more about the dangers of sunscreen ingredients and the safest ways to protect yourself from the damaging effects of excess sun exposure.
The FDA does not provide sufficient insurance of safety in consumer products
The FDA has chronically failed to protect American consumers from the harms of toxic chemicals used in consumer products. Thousands of new chemicals are introduced into the marketplace each year without proper testing to ensure their safety and tens of thousands of chemicals were grandfathered in as safe without proof of safety after the Toxic Substance Control Act was passed in 1967. In fact, over the past few decades the FDA has only labeled about a dozen chemicals as unsafe and mainly relies on industry to regulate itself. Yet even a toothless and industry-beholden agency like the FDA has begun to take issue with the excessive risk to public health that sunscreen ingredients pose. In February of 2019, they proposed new regulations in how sunscreen ingredients are evaluated for safety and found that only 2 of the 14 compounds approved for use as UV filters had enough data to be recognized as safe. They also raised concerns about the substantial degree to which common UV filters are absorbed through the skin and their potential effect on hormone levels, especially in children. Yet the proposed changes in regulation are not yet in effect, and two out of every three sunscreen products on the market still containing the most potentially toxic ingredient. While these changes are an improvement, they do not go far enough to ensure our safety and will undoubtedly be further watered down by industry influence before they are made law. The bottom line is that we can not rely upon the FDA or any other government institution to keep us safe from toxins in sunscreen, other consumer products, or those being released into the environment.
A closer look at UV filters
UV filters currently approved for use in sunscreen
|Generally Recognized as Safe||Insufficient Safety Data|
|Titanium dioxide, zinc oxide||Avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate**, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone**||
Cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, meradimate, padimate o, sulisobenzone
Not recommended by Plum Spring Clinic
Substantial Toxicity Concerns
UV filters in sunscreen can be divided into 2 classes, mineral, and chemical-based. Of the 14 ingredients approved for use, 2 are mineral-based and 12 are chemical-based. Both of the ingredients that are generally recognized as safe by the FDA are mineral-based, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide. None of the chemical-based UV filters have sufficient evidence of safety and two in particular, Oxybenzone and Octinoxate (Octyl methoxycinnamate), have substantial evidence of toxicity.
The greatest amount of research on chemical UV filters has been conducted on the oxybenzone, which has been detected in the blood of more than 96% of Americans and is used in 2 out of 3 of all sunscreens on the market. Oxybenzone is known to cause allergic reactions and has been demonstrated to have weak estrogenic and potent anti-androgenic effects. Studies in adolescent boys have found that oxybenzone can significantly lower testosterone levels and there is concern that the chemical may lower testosterone levels and sperm counts in adult men. Other studies have found associations between oxybenzone and negative birth outcomes such as early birth and altered birth weights. Further study is needed to fully clarify oxybenzone’s status as a hormone disruptor but it is clear that the absorption rate of oxybenzone through the skin is high enough to lead to significant exposure even with one application.
Other chemical UV filters have not been as well studied so it may be that oxybenzone is not the most toxic ingredient, only the most well understood. At least one sunscreen ingredient has been found in the breast milk of 85% of Swiss women so we do know that other UV filters can be absorbed through the skin and that fetuses and infants are being exposed. The increasing popularity of sprays and powder products also raises the risk of inhaled and ingested routes of entry into the body; however, the effect of these chemicals on our lungs and digestive organs has not been investigated. In animal studies, exposure to chemical UV filters has been associated with delayed puberty, altered menstrual cycling, and reduced male fertility. Recent studies at fertility clinics have also found exposure to chemical UV filters to be associated with poorer reproductive success in men and endometriosis in women. Given their potential to mimic our own hormones and cause developmental abnormalities and potentially even cancer, there is plenty to be concerned about. Until more research is done, it is wise to consider all chemical UV filters to be potentially toxic and seek to avoid them.
Titanium dioxide and other potentially toxic common sunscreen additives
Common non-active ingredients, which make up 50 to 70 percent of a sunscreen, also been demonstrated to have significant toxic effects. Even the ingredients generally accepted as safe by the FDA stretch the meaning of ‘safe’ to into unrecognizable territory. While the toxicity of chemical UV filters is becoming clearer, concerns are also rising about one of the two mineral filters on the market, titanium dioxide. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified titanium dioxide as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. Titanium dioxide in sunscreen needs to be pulverized into microscopic particles so as to not clump and appear white on the skin. These incredibly small particles known as nanoparticles can be absorbed through our skin and may interact with our cells in toxic ways. Some nanoparticle forms of titanium dioxide have been shown to be actively absorbed into cells and create reactive oxygen species that can cause oxidative damage to DNA. This is the exact type of damage that UV light can cause and that sunscreen is supposed to help protect us from. Even worse, when nanoparticles are inhaled, which is possible with the use of spray or powder versions of sunscreen, they have been shown to cause mesothelioma, a cancer normally associated with exposure to asbestos. Ingested nanoparticle titanium dioxide has also been shown to alter the junctions between the cells of our intestinal lining potentially contributing to a condition often referred to as leaky gut. Overall, research into the safety of titanium dioxide has resulted in very mixed results. Yet, concerns about its potential to cause oxidative stress, cytotoxicity, genotoxicity, inflammation, epithelial membrane dysfunction, and programmed cell death make calling it safe incredibly premature at best.
Another common non-active ingredient found in sunscreen, the preservative methylisothiazolinone, has been associated with severe skin sensitization and allergic reactions. In fact, the American Contact Dermatitis Society named methylisothiazolinone its “allergen of the year” in 2013. Despite this, methylisothiazolinone is found in about 1 in 5 cosmetic products labeled as hypoallergenic. Methylisothiazolinone in sunscreen is particularly of concern since sunscreen is applied to large areas of the body and is used frequently even daily by some individuals. This can lead to large doses the chemical being absorbed into our bodies. The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded that no concentration of the chemical could be considered safe in leave-on cosmetic products, yet methylisothiazolinone is still allowed in U.S. products.
Another non-active ingredient of concern is retinyl palmitate. This ingredient is marketed as an antioxidant that protects skin from aging. However, research has shown that it may trigger the development of skin cancer when used in the presence of sunlight. The ingredient is also an active form of vitamin A and frequent use of cosmetics laden with retinyl palmitate could contribute to the build up of toxic levels of the vitamin, especially when used on the lips or large portions of the body. Despite this, the ingredient is still commonly used in sunscreen and other products with SPF.
Two other non-active ingredients have even been identified by the FDA as unsafe, PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid, Ethylhexyl dimethyl para-aminobenzoic acid) and trolamine salicylate. These ingredients are rarely used in sunscreen currently but are still legal and used in other personal care products. Animal studies have demonstrated the PABA is toxic to male reproductive cells as well as the spleen and liver. PABA may also increase the mutation promoting effects of sunlight and cause an increased risk of skin cancer despite its UV absorbing properties. It is wise to screen all your personal care products for these ingredients to make sure you aren’t being exposed.
Finally, you may have heard that sunscreen can be harmful to coral reefs. Up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers into coral reef environments each year. Even more sunscreen pollution comes from wastewater discharges. Common sunscreen additives have been shown to kill coral at concentrations as low as one drop in over 6 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The total effect is that as much as 10% of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by sunscreen. The effect of sunscreen on other ecosystems is unknown so this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Not only is our individual health at risk but the health of all organisms that come into contact with these toxins.
So what is the best way to protect yourself from the damaging effects of UV light from the sun?
Feeling like reconsidering your trip to the beach? There are non-toxic methods to protect yourself and some exposure to sunlight can be healthy so don’t cancel those reservations yet. We need some exposure to sunlight to produce the essential vitamin D, which is crucial for bone health and immune function and commonly found to be deficient in Americans. Small amounts of exposure to intense sunlight not only help produce vitamin D but can even help us repair our DNA. The following tips will help block the effects of too much UV light without exposing yourself to toxins:
- Remember that sunscreen is only one part of UV light protection. Clothing, sunglasses, a hat, and the shade of an umbrella or tree also provide effective skin protection but don’t count on shade or a white t-shirt (SPF of 5) as your only skin protection.
- Choose sunscreens that use zinc oxide as the ONLY active ingredient and that do not contain potentially toxic non-active ingredients. Reapply sunscreen every 80 minutes or as needed when swimming.
- Avoid spray and powder versions of sunscreens as these may cause potentially dangerous exposures to the lungs.
- Avoid drinking alcohol when exposed to large amounts of sunlight. Research has shown that alcohol intake increases the damage that the sun causes within our skin cells and may increase the risk of skin cancer.
- Eat a diet rich in brightly colored fruits and vegetables. These foods are excellent sources of antioxidants that help protect our skin cells from the damaging effects of the sun. Some individuals may benefit from oral or topical antioxidants as well.
- Avoid large exposures (more than 30 minutes) to sunlight during peak daylight hours (10-4pm).
Plum Spring Clinic can help!
Still feeling a bit overwhelmed? Need help picking a good sunscreen or deciding whether supplemental antioxidants would be beneficial for skin protection? We are here to help! Plum Spring Clinic carries a safe line of sunscreen for you and your children along with a variety of other non-toxic personal care and beauty products. We even have free samples for you to try out. We can also test the antioxidant levels present in your skin to determine whether your diet is sufficient in antioxidants and if supplemental antioxidants may be helpful.