The Sunscreen Insanity
by RJ Fleming
NOTE: A legitimate scientific research study by an environmental advocacy group in 2011 found that only 20% of sunscreens provide the protection they claim.
Being outdoors, at altitude and in the mountains most of the time requires that our guides and clients use a lot of quality sunscreen. We use it religiously, and carry extra suncream to offer our clients. Unfortunately, there is nothing more bewildering than the highly confusing, high-profit margin area of the sunscreen business. Yet there are two unambiguous facts among all of the marketing jargon and half-truths concerning these products:
1) the sun’s rays will harm you and must be guarded against;
2) the marketing of sunscreens plays to our naivety about sunscreen products, the cosmetics industry in general and sun protection in particular, through misleading terminology, unofficial nomenclature of products and mostly, a designed lack of clarity based in marketing rhetoric. We do not wish to sound negative, but essentially, much of what we read about sunscreens from a sunscreen maker is doubtful at best, and often untrue.
Below we address some important facts, the common myths, a few articles and a look at the research we used to determine the legitimate information hiding in the marketing confusion; the Basic Facts below will delineate what you need to know. We used only impartial studies from the scientific community and not from product manufacturers with an obvious vested interest. When we delved into the original source of many sunscreen articles found in the media, it was determined that many were actually paid advertisements planted by cosmetics companies in the guise of a factual study. For these reasons the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now revised advertising guidelines to force sunscreen makers to abandon misleading claims in labeling.
Along with this growing understanding of the importance of sunscreen protection for skin cancers, the FDA released new labeling guidelines on June 14, 2011, to ensure a more stringent level of sunscreen labeling and product quality. With the new labeling regulations, consumers should be aware that over the next two years, manufacturers of sunscreen will not be labeling products above SPF 50 anymore because there is a lack of evidence that any product with greater than SPF 50 offers additional significant protection. Furthermore, due to FDA’s concern that certain words overstate the effectiveness of the products and provide consumers with a false impression of what sunscreens are truly capable of doing, sunscreens can no longer be labeled with the words such as “waterproof,” “sweatproof” or “sunblock.” (ref. Julie Chen M.D.)
*UPDATE 2013: Recent lobbying efforts by the cosmetics industry has pressured the FDA to postpone implementation of the new labelling guidelines, possibly past 2015, so consumers must continue to be aware of falsely-labelled product claims.
The Environment Working Group Study
The nonprofit Environment Working Group recently released its fifth annual Skin Deep Sunscreens report, which examined more than 1,700 sunblocks, lip balms, moisturizers and make-up products that list a sun protection factor — more commonly known as an SPF — on its packaging. To determine the rankings, the EWG looked at five factors, including:
1) potential health hazards of listed ingredients;
2) UVB protection;
3) UVA protection;
4) the balance of UVA and UVB protection; and
5) sunscreen stability (how quickly the ingredients break down in the sun).
The group then ranked the sunscreens from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best.
The EWG currently has a petition drive under way that calls on the FDA to implement sunscreen regulations and govern label claims. This will not apply to sunscreens sold outside the US, however, so be aware of this.
EWG stated: “FDA neglect has allowed the proliferation of overstated safety claims, misleading SPF values and the use of phototoxic ingredients,” EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder said in a statement. “Without firm guidelines, consumers only have a 1 in 5 chance of picking a safe and effective sunscreen from store shelves.”
In the EWG’s 2011 sunscreen report, all of the top-rated sunscreens contained either the minerals zinc or titanium — these offer some of the best natural protection by literally blocking the sun. (If you had to slather white lotion on your nose as a kid, it was most likely a zinc oxide sunscreen.) Sunscreens ranking lower in the report included vitamin A and other chemicals like oxybenzone, both of which the EWG claim could disrupt hormones. Because of the potential for consumers to inhale spray-on or powdered sunscreens when applying them, the EWG didn’t recommend any of these forms of sunscreen.
Among the 134 top-ranking beach and sport sunscreens was Maui Natural Organics 30 SPF Sunscreen, Aveeno’s Baby Natural Protection Mineral Block Face Stick with an SPF of 30; Badger Sunscreen, unscented, with an SPF of 30+; and Tropical Sands All Natural Sunscreen, with an SPF of 50.
The EWG gave no high ratings to non-mineral sunscreens. However, the group did recommend 11 sunscreens for those consumers who don’t like mineral-containing sunscreens. Included on that list was Bull Frog’s Ultimate Sheer Protection Body, with an SPF of 30; Coppertone’s Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, with an SPF of 15; and Lubriderm’s Daily Moisture Lotion, with an SPF of 15.
Basic Facts About Sunscreens
Despite ongoing controversy over the safety of the chemicals in sunscreens, most scientists and doctors agree that there is no evidence that sunscreen ingredients are harmful to humans. The argument that sunscreen ingredients are carcinogenic, block vitamin D or alter the body’s hormone system will require further research and experimental studies before any conclusions are drawn.
It’s a common misconception that a higher SPF number means you are doubly or triply protected. A higher number does indicate more protection, but it doesn’t give you two to three times as much protection as one with an SPF 15. Sunscreens with SPF 15 filter out roughly 93 percent of UVB rays and SPF 30 sunscreens filter about 97 percent. The protection slightly increases as the SPF number gets higher, but only by one percent (98) for SPF 50 and two percent (99) for SPF 100 sunscreens. The recent advertising and aggressive marketing of expensive 80-90-100 SPF sunscreens is fraudulent in the implications these products are much safer – they are a waste of money and perhaps more dangerous. The fact is that high SPF products protect perhaps 1% more than an SPF 50 product, while costing 2, 3 and 5 times as much! This abusive marketing coupled with the fact most people buying such expensive sunscreens might use less to save money, can result in consumers actually getting less protection and receiving more harmful sun damage. The fact is no one sunscreen protects completely.
The sun protection factor (SPF) number on sunscreens only measures protection against UVB rays, the skin-burning rays. There is no current FDA-approved rating system for measuring protection from UVA rays, which cause aging of the skin. To ensure coverage against UVB and UVA rays, you should use a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen, or one that contains avobenzone (Parsol 1789), ecamsule, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
Sunscreens labeled “waterproof” or “water-resistant” are slightly different in their chemical makeup and water tolerance. Water-resistant sunscreens can maintain their SPF level after 40 minutes of water exposure, and waterproof sunscreens can maintain their SPF level after 80 minutes of water exposure, according to the FDA. If you plan on being in the water or participating in outdoor activities, you should choose a water-resistant or waterproof sunscreen for optimal protection.
For years, people have blamed sunscreen and dermatologists’ pleas to stay out of the sun as the leading cause for vitamin D deficiency in Americans. However, we now know that there is little to no evidence that shows sunscreens cause vitamin D deficiency, and people can get the recommended amount of vitamin D from other sources than just the sun, such as taking dietary supplements and eating foods like salmon, milk and eggs. It is more likely that fast food or other poor dietary choices led to a Vitamin D deficiency than using sunscreen….
We now know that sunscreen is not fail-safe because it is not a guaranteed protection against all of the sun’s harmful rays. There is also no supporting evidence that sunscreens protect you from developing malignant melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer. Sunscreen alone will not fully protect you from the sun or from developing skin cancer. In addition to wearing sunscreen, you should also seek shade, wear protective clothing, avoid peak hours of sun exposure and monitor the UV index.
7) One Ounce of Sunscreen is Needed to Cover Your Body:
We now know that one ounce, equivalent to a full shot glass (30ml), is the recommended amount of sunscreen needed to cover your exposed skin. You should apply sunscreen liberally and reapply every two hours, especially after perspiring, swimming or towel-drying. Sunscreen is something you definitely don’t want to go easy on. Don’t forget to protect the often-missed parts of the body, i.e. lips, ears, hands, feet, neck, scalp and the inside of the nose when on glaciers or water.
8) Everyone Regardless of Skin Colour Needs to Use Sunscreen:
People of all races and ethnicities are at risk for developing skin cancer, and should wear sunscreen to protect them from UV radiation. People with fair skin and a large number of freckles and moles have a greater chance of burning and developing skin cancer, but people with darker skin also burn and develop skin cancer as well. Dark-skinned individuals are also more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer in the later stages when it is more dangerous and could be fatal.
Whether it’s sunny, cloudy or snowing outside, you still need sunscreen to stay protected all year long. Ultraviolet rays can do a significant amount of damage even when the sun is not at its hottest. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, people have experienced some of the most severe sunburns because they did not protect themselves on cloudy days, where up to 40% of the sun’s radiation can get through. So, whether you’re on the slopes or in the waves, you need to wear sunscreen every season in every type of weather.
According to the FDA, all sunscreens have to be stable at their original strength for at least three years, unless otherwise indicated by an expiration date. Sunscreens lose their effectiveness after three years, especially when the bottle is exposed to direct sunlight, extreme changes in temperature or left open. Although sunscreen is said to have a shelf life of three years, if you’re using the appropriate amount of sunscreen daily, you shouldn’t have bottles of sunscreen sitting around for more than one year!
11) There is No Safe Way to Tan:
Every time you tan, you damage your skin. As this damage builds, you speed up the aging of your skin and increase your risk for all types of skin cancer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Will using sunscreen limit the amount of vitamin D a person gets?
Using sunscreen may decrease your skin’s production of vitamin D. If you are concerned that you are not getting enough vitamin D, you should discuss your options for getting vitamin D with your doctor. Many people can get the vitamin D they need from foods and/or vitamin supplements. This approach gives you the vitamin D you need without increasing your risk for skin cancer.
Q. Is sunscreen all that is needed as protection against the sun?
Sunscreen plays an important role in protecting your skin from the sun, but it does not offer complete protection. To protect your skin and find skin cancer early, dermatologists recommend the following:
– Generously apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30 to all exposed skin. “Broad-spectrum” provides protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Re-apply approximately every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating.
– Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, where possible.
– Seek shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.5
– Use extra caution near water, snow and sand as they reflect the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chance of sunburn.
– Get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet that may include vitamin supplements. Don’t seek the sun.
– Avoid tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling. If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it.
– Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin, see a dermatologist. Skin cancer is very treatable when caught early.
Q. How should sunburn be treated properly?
It’s important to begin treating a sunburn as soon as possible. In addition to stopping further UV exposure, dermatologists recommend treating a sunburn with:
– Cool baths to reduce the heat.
– Moisturizer to help ease the discomfort caused by dryness. As soon as you get out of the bathtub, gently pat yourself dry, but leave a little water on your skin. Then apply a moisturizer to trap the water in your skin.
– Hydrocortisone cream that you can buy without a prescription to help ease discomfort. Aspirin or ibuprofen. This can help reduce the swelling, redness, and discomfort.
– Drinking extra water. A sunburn draws fluid to the skin surface and away from the rest of the body. Drinking extra water prevents dehydration.
– Do not treat with “-caine” products (such as benzocaine).
– If your skin blisters, you have a second-degree sunburn. Dermatologists recommend that you allow the blisters to heal untouched. Blisters form to help your skin heal and protect you from infection. If the blisters cover a large area, such as the entire back, or you have chills, a headache, or a fever, seek immediate medical care.
– With any sunburn, you should avoid the sun while your skin heals. Be sure to cover the sunburn every time before you head outdoors.
The sun emits two types of ultraviolet light that affect human skin, UVA and UVB. UVB is much stronger than UVA, and it has an immediate impact on skin, within 60 seconds. It is most powerful during the summer and especially between the hours of 11am to 4pm. UVB is completely blocked by glass (windows) whereas UVA radiation penetrates through glass and windows and can cause damage to the skin even on cloudy days. Although UVA is lower in intensity and is not felt by the skin, it is the main cause of premature skin aging (wrinkles, sagging and age spots) and possibly skin cancer.
SPF numbers are designed to describe the length of time you can stay in the sun before you start burning your skin. For example, if you normally start to burn after 30 minutes of direct sunlight, then an SPF 30 product should let you stay in the sun for approximately 30 times longer without burning. (This is, in practical terms however, not true. Ed.).
Despite these concerns, there is good news. Here are some helpful pointers that can help you to choose a healthy sunscreen (the term “sunblock” has been legally eliminated since it is inaccurate):
• Look for formulas that have either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in them. Out of the two, zinc oxide causes fewer allergic reactions. These are natural mineral compounds that will “block” the UV rays from penetrating the skin; the only drawback I know of is that they may leave a white residue. Note: stay away from products claiming they use “nano-particles” (between 1 to 100 nanometers), which can penetrate skin. Follow product warnings for infants under 6 months old.
• Avoid synthetic estrogen compounds, which appear under names like oxybenzone (benzophenone-3 and 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC), as well as other derivatives that are super free radical generators (causing skin damage) such as avobenzone, Parsol 1789, dioxybenzone, ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnimate, 2-ethylhexyl salicylate, trolamine salicylate, homosalate and PABA.
• Also avoid: Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) — there is some new research indicating that it may possibly contribute to skin tumors and lesions. Insect Repellents are often added to sunscreen, but they should also be avoided.
• Purchase cream-based products only. Avoid sprays and powders, as the vapors and particulates can easily be inhaled and irritate nasal passages and respiratory system.
• Use an SPF of at least 15 — and apply plenty of it every two hours and thirty minutes prior to exposure, since it takes many sunscreens that amount of time to become active.
• Before using any sunscreen on children, test it by applying a small amount to your child’s wrist. If the skin turns red, itchy or irritated within 20 minutes, try another brand.
Sun Safety Tips
• Wear loose, cotton/linen, and light-colored clothes. Long sleeve shirts, pants and dresses will reduce UV rays from penetrating the skin. A good hat with a large brim will protect the face, neck, eyes and ears.
• For water sports, a rash guard or full-body swimsuit works beautifully for children who love to be in the water for hours at a time. Use a hat that can be cinched down under the chin.
• Play in the shade. Use an umbrella at the beach, and keep infants completely out of the sun: sunscreen should not be used under six months of age due to their sensitive skin. In addition, infants under the age of 12 months do not have enough melanin, a protective pigment in skin that helps block out UV rays.
• Schedule indoor or shaded play dates around the peak sun hours of 11 am to 4 pm.
• Wear polarized sunglasses to prevent skin damage around the eye and cataracts. Attach the glasses to straps, so you don’t lose them.
• Use removable mesh window shields to keep direct sunlight from coming in through the windows of your car
• Eat organic foods high in antioxidants to build up your “internal sunscreen”, including fresh vegetables and fruits such as berries, pomegranate, acai and goji berries. For children who shy away from veggies, give them a daily antioxidant supplement loaded with Vitamin C, Vitamin E and greens.
Sunscreen Article by Dr Susanne Bennett
Sunscreens and sunblocks protect our skin by different mechanisms. Sunblocks actually sit “on” the skin and act as a barrier to reflect away ultraviolet (UV) rays — both UVA and UVB radiation can cause sunburn, skin damage and skin cancer. Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are both sunblocking agents for both UVA and UVB rays. Sunblocks usually start at an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 15 or higher (though all SPF ratings apply only to UVB protection, not UVA).
In comparison, sunscreens are made with chemicals that absorb and neutralize the ultraviolet radiation. Sunscreen chemicals typically protect against either UVA or UVB, while only a few protect against both types of radiation. As a result, sunscreens usually have mixtures of both kinds of chemicals in order to be labeled as “broad spectrum” — and to be fully protective. The SPF levels of sunscreen are widely varied, starting as low as 2 and rising as high as 100+.
Some people also have concerns about chemical sunscreens acting as endocrine disruptors — compounds that mimic hormones and activate hormone receptors. Some studies have indicated that these chemicals may generate free radicals that can damage skin and possibly cause skin cancer.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Warnings
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned that it takes only a few serious sunburns to increase a child’s risk of developing skin cancer later in life. To protect your children — and yourself — from sunburns, the CDC recommended taking the following steps:
– Stay in the shade during midday, the time when UV rays are the strongest and most harmful to skin.
– Cover up to help protect your skin. The CDC acknowledges that while long pants and a long-sleeve shirt are the best options, they aren’t practical in the hot summer. Use sunscreen as well as cover-ups for double protection.
– Wear a hat that can protect the face scalp, ears and neck. If choosing to wear a baseball cap, slather sunscreen on ears, neck and other exposed areas.
– Don those shades to guard against UV rays, which can lead to cataracts later in life. Look for wrap-around sunglasses, and block as much UVA and UVB rays as possible.
– Use sunscreen early and often, and choose one with at least an SPF of 15 with UVA and UVB protection whenever going outside.
1. Garland, Cedric F. et al. Effect of sunscreens on UV radiation-induced enhancement of melanoma growth in mice. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 86, No. 10, May 18, 1994, pp. 798-801.
2. Larsen, H.R. “Sunscreens: do they cause skin cancer.” International Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 1994; 12(12): 17-19.