Savvy Sunscreen Tips

Boy wearing a hat with sunscreen on nose

Unaltered image. Bryan, Flickr. CC License.

Should we swap one health hazard for another? Overexposure to the sun can damage DNA and lead to skin cancer. Therefore protecting our skin, especially during the hottest part of the day, is vital. But if we try to protect ourselves using only sunscreen, we may run the risk of other health hazards, including other cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer.

Hormone Disruption

Common sunscreen preservatives, parabens and BHA, are known to disrupt the endocrine (hormone) system. Increasing evidence shows that the popular chemical active ingredients (those that “actively” absorb or block UVB rays), oxybenzone (benzophenone-3 or BP-3) and octinoxate (octyl-methoxycinnamate or OMC) may disrupt the endocrine system as well. The authors of the scientific review article, Sunscreens: are they beneficial for health? An overview of endocrine disrupting properties of UV-filters, state, “the UV-filters BP-3 … and OMC can be considered as substances of high concern in relation to human risk.”

The National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences’ (NIEHS) publication, Endocrine Disruptors, warns American consumers that, “… endocrine disruptors may cause … increases in mammary, ovarian, and prostate cancers …” among other health concerns such as reductions in male and female fertility, abnormalities in male reproductive organs, early puberty in girls, and increases in immune and autoimmune diseases.

Adequate Protection

Surprisingly, sunscreen chemicals may not sufficiently protect us from skin cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its Burning Facts fact sheet states, “Although a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher offers protection from sunburn, it does not block all of the sun’s damaging rays. In fact, there is no evidence that sunscreens protect you from malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer …”

The EPA goes on to suggest that to “fully protect yourself, remember to seek shade, minimize peak hours of sun exposure, and wear protective clothing in addition to applying sunscreen.” The EPA urges consumers to use full-spectrum sunscreen, which protects the skin against both UVA and UVB rays. Both are linked to skin cancer, but a product’s SPF only refers to blockage of UVB rays.

Look for Minerals

The majority of individual chemical sunscreen active ingredients are not full spectrum; they do not successfully block UVA rays. However the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide do physically block both UVA and UVB rays.

Avobenzone is one chemical active ingredient that receives a low-toxicity rating from the environmental health watchdog group, the Environmental Working Group (EWG). According to the EPA, avobenzone offers extensive UVA protection and limited UVB protection.

Remember These Five Tips

1. Prevent sun exposure

  • Minimize exposure when the sun’s rays are strongest from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Wear a hat and protective, light-colored clothing

2. Use “Broad Spectrum” sunscreen to protect against both UVA and UVB rays

  • SPF only refers to blockage of UVB rays, not UVA
  • UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and can cause wrinkles and skin cancer

3. Look for minerals or least toxic active ingredients

4. Avoid potential and known endocrine disruptors in the ingredients

  • Active ingredients: oxybenzone (BP-3) and octinoxate (OMC)
  • Preservatives: parabens and BHA

5. Use sunscreen properly

  • Lay it on thick
  • Reapply after 2 hours

Buying Guide

Mineral Sunscreen Brands

Lip Balms with SPF

**Indicates brands with both chemical- and mineral-based suncreens. Look for the specific line(s) listed to avoid chemical active ingredients. This list isn’t exhaustive or all-inclusive.

– Melissa Cooper Sargent, Environmental Health Educator with LocalMotionGreen at Ecology Center. For more information, you can email her at melissas@ecocenter.org or visit http://www.ecocenter.org/lmg.

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