Killer sunscreen? What your mama never told you about sun protection.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.  Women with child by Goodluv. Child in hat by Eric Boucher.

It’s enough to drive parents crazy: “Slather your kids in sunscreen!” we are told. Yet, we are learning that the majority of popular sunscreens might NOT provide protection from the worst of the skin cancers and might actually increase our children’s chances of getting some cancers.

According to the EWG, popular sunscreens known to contain ingredients possibly linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption include: Panama Jack, Origins, No-Ad, Neutrogena, L’Oreal, Hawaiian Tropic, Coppertone, Bareminerals, Banana Boat, Aveeno.

The issues with sunscreen

 The FDA says it is "not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer," according to a recent Huffington Post article.  It gets worse. A 2007 meta-analysis of 17 (out of 18 known) studies on the subject concluded that: “there was no statistically significant effect of use of sunscreens on risk of melanoma.” The study further found that in latitudes greater than 40 degrees (New York and north—i.e. Vancouver and all the rest of Canada) the use of sunscreen might actually “contribute to the risk of melanoma.”  (Malignant melanoma is the deadliest of skin cancers accounting for about 4% of skin cancers but 75% of skin cancer related deaths.)

Sunscreens are effective at blocking UVB rays, but do not do such a good job of blocking UVA rays. The skin doesn’t get “burnt” because the burning rays are blocked, but it still gets zapped. So, though sunscreens are effective at reducing the risk of squamos-cell carcinoma (associated with exposure to UVB rays), this is neither particularly abundant (at 16% of skin cancer cases) nor particularly deadly. UVB rays are also the ones associated with Vitamin D production in the body. No one seems to know for sure if this is why sunscreen wearers have as much or more chance of developing melanoma.

Dirty sunscreen

In an independent investigation, EWG researchers reviewed 500 popular sunscreens and recommended only 39 of them as safe for consumers. The worst offenders were often the market leaders:   None of the 39 received a perfect score. Even worse, they found that many brands made inaccurate and misleading claims such as “water-proof,” “broad-spectrum protection,” and even “chemical-free.” Other words to be wary of: “for babies,” “natural,”  and any SPF over 50.  Many sunscreens, including those marketed specifically to children and babies, had known carcinogens, neurotoxins, ingredients known to become unstable and reactive when exposed to sunlight, and chemicals linked with endocrine disorders (gender-bending effects), and birth defects.  Some of the worst offenders include the more popular brands (Neutrogena, No-Ad, Coppertone, Banana Boat) and there packages were littered with the above-mentioned meaningless statements. 

The FDA has been working on comprehensive sunscreen safety regulation for 33 years, but it still hasn’t been finalized.  This leaves U.S. sunscreen wearers with few standards, little oversight, and little availability to better options now commonly available in the E.U., Asia, and even Canada.  “Sunscreen chemicals approved in Europe but not by the FDA provide up to five times more UVA protection; U.S. companies have been waiting five years for FDA approval to use the same compounds,” reports the EWG. Some of the chemicals providing this much-improved UVA protection include Bemotrizinol and bisoctrizole (a.k.a. Tinosorb) and Mexoryl SX. Sunscreens containing these UVA blockers are available in Canada but not the US.

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