Every spring, it seems as though new and confusing research about sunscreen is released. Dermatologists, oncologists, and the FDA stress that sunscreen reduces our risks for deadly skin cancer and is absolutely safe. Environmentalists, functional medicine doctors, and most other naturally tilted providers are wary of trusting the FDA and skincare companies and their claims of safety. In the middle, you have consumers like you and me that are just trying to make the best decisions we can and protect ourselves when possible. So, just how do we settle the Great Sunscreen Debate?
The Pros- As the Pros See It
We know that almost all skin cancers are preventable, and at the root is excessive sun exposure. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., with 1 in 5 Americans developing some kind of skin cancer in their lifetime. Professionals reiterate the safety and efficacy of sunscreen annually. Their position is supported by FDA approval of these products, along with the ease and accessibility of sunscreen for most of us.
The Cons- Is What They Say a Con?
There is a good deal of research that is coming out about the chemicals used in sunscreen and skincare products and how they affect us and our environment long-term. Opponents to run-of-the-mill sunscreen cite chemical ingredients we know little about, environmental factors such as damage to coral reefs and small sea life, and that sunscreen that blocks UVB rays actually inhibits the production of Vitamin D, a hormone that we are almost all deficient in.
Benzene is a carcinogen that was found in several sunscreen products and is also found in vehicle emissions and second-hand smoke. Benzene is not an ingredient, but rather a by-product of manufacturing. This discovery led to the recall of several sunscreen lines, including J&J products Aveeno and Neutrogena.
What Do We Know?
Both types of sun rays can cause cancer, which is the biggest reason sunscreen is even an issue. As we touched on before, UVA rays cause visible signs of aging and UVB rays are responsible for sunburns and the production of Vitamin D. For sunscreen to serve us well, it needs to be broad-spectrum, meaning it protects us from both. The most effective sunscreen provides both a physical and chemical barrier. Physical barriers would include umbrellas, hats, clothes, and minerals that stay on top of the skin, preventing rays from getting through to delicate skin. Chemical barriers use chemicals such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate to absorb UV before it can penetrate the skin. Until 2019, it was believed that these chemicals did not penetrate the skin, but stayed on the surface. However, research in 2019 and 2020 showed that not only did these chemicals absorb into our skin, but they seep into our bloodstream and stay present for days at a time.
These chemicals have also been detected in breast milk and urine and have been associated with hormone, kidney, and thyroid issues. Nevertheless, researchers feel there is not enough evidence for a cause-and-effect connection to be made just yet, stating the risks of not wearing sunscreen poses the greater risk for now.
The environmental concerns aren’t any better. The NOAA cites ten sunscreen ingredients that pose a threat to ocean life. They also claim that sunscreen prevents photosynthesis in algae and stunting growth, the same chemicals build up in coral tissues causing bleaching, deformities, and even death in young coral. There is also an association with birth defects, fertility, and deformities, especially in small sea life such as urchins and mussels.
The FDA has begun revamping its regulatory processes involving sunscreen, asking for more safety data on ingredients, also announcing their intent to assess sunscreen’s effect on the environment. The FDA does regulate skincare products and continues to change regulations as research becomes available. The question is, can they be trusted? In the end, doctors hold the same belief that sunscreen is safe and data shows that it reduces our risk of deadly skin cancer. They propose that even with new research coming out questioning the safety of ingredients, that until the risks outweigh the benefits, we should continue to use sunscreen and protect ourselves.
What About “Reef-Safe” Products?
There are new products claiming to be reef-safe hitting the shelves each year. However, one must note there are no standards or regulated meanings behind these terms at this time. The field of reef-safe science is not set in stone yet. “This is an evolving—and confusing—field scientifically, and a lot of the current information is contradictory,” says Michael Gonsior, PhD, associate professor, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
So What Do WE Do?
Until better products are developed and more research is conducted, giving us a clearer picture, it will be up to the consumer to take extra steps to protect themselves. This means side-stepping some of the convenience we’ve come to enjoy in order to protect ourselves and those we love. We know the sun causes damage, so protection has to go beyond sunscreen to include shade and timing as well.
The NOAA recommends that you seek shade between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM to avoid the most damaging rays. This includes sun hats, umbrellas, going indoors, or sitting under a covering. Wearing UPF clothing such as swimsuits, shirts, and pants, along with applying ocean-safe sunscreen to any exposed skin will also add protection. Most of these sunscreen products are only water-resistant for 80 minutes or less, so set a timer and reapply consistently.
Consumer Reports released a list of their top sunscreen products that do not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. The list includes Alba Botanica Hawaiian Coconut Clear SPF 50, Equate Ultra Lotion SPF 50, and Trader Joe’s Spray SPF 50. Their recommended mineral sunscreens included Badger Active Mineral Cream SPF 30 and California Kids #supersensitive Tinted Lotion SPF 30.
This debate is nowhere near settled. However, as an educated consumer, you have the power to decide what information is important to you and aligns with your values, and make decisions accordingly. Thankfully, we live in a world with no shortage of sunscreen options. We also have the ability to choose to alter our behaviors to reflect our values, taking an extra step or two to protect ourselves and our families.