Is your sunscreen giving you cancer?

Watch out for these dangerous chemicals when choosing a sunscreen, or skip the ingredients list and just buy the ones we recommend.

Credit: courtesy miamism

You should be scared sh*tless about the astounding lack of regulation in sunscreen production

The 1950s Coppertone kid, with her pronounced tan lines peeking out from underneath her swimsuit, might represent old-fashioned attitudes toward sun protection (no shirt, no hat, low SPF), but the sunscreen brand she successfully hawked continues to rule drugstore shelves.


Buyers Guide:

Safe and not-so-safe sunscreens

The EWG rated 500 sunscreens for safety. Here are a few of their top picks, and a few you should avoid at all costs:


Safe sunscreens


Worst sunscreens

For the full list of sunscreen ratings, see the EWG’s 2010 Sunscreen Guide or download their iPhone app.

And although the importance of sun protection has grown epidemically since the 1950s, numerous reports indicate that the incidence of skin cancer is on the rise, and it’s not only because of the depleted ozone layer. Scientists don’t know for sure but suspect that sunscreens aren’t as effective as they were once thought to be.


With outdated FDA cosmetics laws, many have pointed the finger at the lack of regulation in North America, and ensuing lack of awareness by consumers about what’s actually in their sunscreen, how it works and how best to protect themselves from sun damage. What’s worse, recent research has also shown that many sunscreens can actually do more harm than good.


Check it: Health problems associated with sunscreen use

Research aggregated by the US-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) has revealed that numerous health problems can be caused and exacerbated by today’s sunscreens. EWG’s 2010 Sunscreen Guide reports that many sunscreens:

  1. Don’t protect against melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer
  2. Might actually increase the risk of developing skin cancer
  3. Can enter the bloodstream and interfere with the body’s hormones

In fact, this year the EWG reviewed 500 popular sunscreens and recommended only 39 of them as safe for consumer use.


Killer ingredients and sunscreen safety factors

When choosing a sunscreen, these are the most important health factors and ingredients to be aware of, according to the EWG:


Oxybenzone: This chemical found in many sunscreens enters the bloodstream and has been shown to disrupt hormones. And yet, it is found in most commercial sunscreens. EGW recommends avoiding products that contain it.


Vitamin A: Many sunscreen-makers include vitamin A in their formulas because it’s a common anti-aging ingredient. This may be fine in night creams where sun exposure is not a factor, but when exposed to sunlight, vitamin A can actually increase the development of skin tumours.


SPF: Sun protection factor, or SPF, indicates a sunscreen’s ability to protect against sunburn. However, the EWG warns that sunscreens with SPFs higher than 50 make unfounded claims about sun protection. There hasn’t been any scientific proof that high SPFs offer more protection. Furthermore, they tend to promote reckless sun exposure.


UVA Protection: Many sunscreens provide UVB protection – blocking the rays that cause sunburns – but inadequate UVA protection from rays that cause skin cancer. Always buy a sunscreen that offers both UVA and UVB protection and beware of claims made about enhanced protection of any kind. Under current FDA regulations, sunscreen makers aren’t actually required to back up their claims with any scientific proof.



Types of sunscreens: the bad, the less bad and the super bad for baby

There are two main types of sunscreens: chemical formulas that absorb into the skin and can actually become unstable in sunlight, and mineral formulas that don’t penetrate the skin but do contain zinc and titanium particles. Neither is a perfectly safe choice, though the EWG’s 39 recommended sunscreens are all mineral products.


Consumers face a plethora of choices when it comes to sunscreen formats: powders, sprays, lip balms, SPF moisturizers, SPF makeup – you name it. The EWG warns that powders and sprays can end up in your eyes and lungs as well as on your skin, where they can do additional damage.


Be particularly wary of baby sunscreen formulas which often make unwarranted claims and have the potential to cause greater damage to children’s developing systems.


Sunscreen regulation

For a product designed to keep skin safe, sunscreen suffers from outdated legislation and lack of regulation; laws affecting sunscreen haven’t changed since 1938 and place the authority in the hands of companies, not government.


European regulations are much stricter and offer more choice in chemical compounds available for use, resulting in safer products—many of which are available in Canada.


US regulations could soon change, however, due to the recent introduction of the 2010 Safe Cosmetics Act in US Congress, which would require discontinuation of hazardous products in cosmetics. 



The best sun protection

For now, however, scientists continue to stress that the best way to protect the skin from sun damage is a shirt, a hat and some shade.


If you will be exposed to direct sunlight for more than 10 minutes, choose a sunscreen from the EWG’s safe sunscreen list and be aware of dangerous ingredients and claims. Then slap on a shirt and hat to boot.