Is Your Sunscreen Toxic?

Evelyn lives in the Pacific Northwest where she enjoys birding by the Puget Sound, working on her Fiat 500, and spending time with other people's dogs and children. She recently relocated from New York City, where her work appeared in Time Out New York, Travel + Leisure, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, among others.

How to tell if your sunscreen is toxicWear sunscreen with at least 30 SPF every single day. That’s what we are told from the moment we can ask our mothers at the most awkward and public moment possible, “Mommy, why is that lady all spotted and wrinkled?”

We are told sunscreen protects us and our children from harmful UV rays, minimizing our risk for skin cancer as well as premature aging. No one wants to hear the words premature and aging together in a sentence, so we (mostly) remember to put it on every day, just like we are told.

But have you ever wondered what is actually in the product we call sunscreen? Some organizations are concerned about the toxicity of the very substance we think is protecting us from cancer. Not all of the evidence is clear, so we’ve gathered information on the top chemicals that are making some people concerned.

OXYBENZONE: The main ingredient in many sunscreens, the Environnmental Working Group states that it is a hormone-disrupting chemical that is absorbed through the skin. When hormones are disrupted, your endocrine system goes into shock, altering natural hormone levels and interfering with hormone signaling. Oxybenzone also only blocks UVB rays, not both UVA and UVB, so it can potentially be leaving you with less protection than advertised.

The Skin Cancer Foundation disagrees, stating that oxybenzone is an important sunscreen used frequently in the most widely available sunscreens, and that there has been no peer-reviewed scientific research to support the anti-oxybenzone party’s claim. It is commonly used in conjuction with avobenzone or Mexoryl, all of which block UVA rays. If used together in a single sunscreen, along with a stabalizing agent like octocrylene, Polyester-8, butyloctyl salicylate, or ethylhexyl methoxycrylene, it will protect skin from the broad spectrum of UV rays. (Helioplex, the main ingredient in Neutrogena’s sunscreen line, is an already-stable UVA protector.)

Phew! That’s a lot of chemicals.

RETINYL PALMATE/VITAMIN A: The EWP reports that research on mice shows that retinyl palmitate, a form of Vitamin A, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight.

However, the Skin Cancer Foundation states that these studies examined retinyl palmitate only as it reacts to UV radiation in isolation. But when a retinyl palmitate is used in sunscreen, other antioxidants like vitamins C and D are present and will neutralize free radicals.

HIGH SPF AND FRAGRANCE: SPF over 50 offers no more protection than SPF under 50, and can confuse consumers into a false sense of security; they stop reapplying sunscreen because they think SPF 100 will protect them all day long. Also, many people are sensitive to fragrance and have allergic reactions as a result.

So, how do you choose a sunscreen? If you are getting rashes or are very concerned about oxybenzone and the potential for hormone disruption (though keep in mind, the evidence may not be scientifically sound), go to the EWG’s sunscreen guide and look for ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide used as the main sunblock. These chemicals definitely do not penetrate the skin and provide broad-spectrum UV protection against the sun’s most damaging rays. Make sure your sunscreen is unscented and does not have essential oils in it, and always reapply sunscreen throughout the day.

Whether you are convinced or not by the EWG’s claims, keep in mind what you learned from your mom: The bottom line is that your skin needs to be blocked from the sun’s damaging rays in order to prevent skin cancer. Use whatever makes you the most comfortable to protect your skin, just be sure to use something!

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