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The State of Sunscreen: What Should We Be Using?

New studies, changing facts and what is this Reef Safe thing about?

By Michael Todd Sapko MD, PhD.

Responsible people face a difficult decision when it comes to selecting a sunscreen. By now, people are aware of the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays from the sun, including UVA and UVB radiation. The sun’s rays prematurely age the skin and greatly increase the risk of various forms of skin cancer. However, responsible people are now realizing that not all sunscreens are safe. Some are damaging to the environment, to human health, or both. This article will describe the ingredients in sunscreen you should avoid.

The FDA no longer considers chemical sunscreens “generally safe and effective”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had long considered the ingredients in sunscreens to be generally regarded as safe and effective (GRASE). In February 2019, however, the FDA released proposed guidance on various sunscreen ingredients. The FDA specifically named PABA and trolamine salicylate as not GRASE. Moreover, the FDA stated that there was insufficient evidence to consider 12 ingredients GRASE, namely:

· Cinoxate

· Dioxybenzone

· Ensulizole

· Homosalate

· Meradimate

· Octinoxate

· Octisalate

· Octocrylene

· Padimate O

· Sulisobenzone

· Oxybenzone

· Avobenzone

These ingredients are collectively known as chemical sunscreens. Only two sunscreen ingredients were listed as GRASE by the FDA: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are known as mineral or physical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens are not absorbed into the skin, but physically block UV rays on the surface of the skin.

The trouble with chemical sunscreens:

Unfortunately, chemical sunscreens remain very popular. Oxybenzone, for example, is one of the most popular and widely marketed sunscreen ingredients. This sunscreen ingredient is particularly problematic because it has substantial, negative impact on our oceans. Approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the oceans each year. Oxybenzone is known to cause coral bleaching, which kills coral and devastates the underwater ecosystem. Octinoxate, PABA, and octocrylate can also harm ocean wildlife including green algae, coral, sea urchins, fish and dolphins.

Chemical sunscreens, like oxybenzone, absorb into the skin. So, they are not only harmful for animal life, but can cause problems in humans as well. Oxybenzone is so widely used that almost every human’s blood tests positive for the compound. The chemical sunscreen ingredient binds potently to steroid receptors, causing anti-androgen (i.e. anti-testosterone) and anti-estrogen effects. For environmental and personal health reasons, chemical sunscreens should be avoided in favor of physical sunscreens.

New worry about titanium dioxide:

The two mineral sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which have been listed as GRASE by the FDA. However, The European Commission recently decided to name titanium dioxide as a category 2 carcinogen (category 2 carcinogen is a substance that can cause cancer in humans). Indeed, any product in the EU that contains more than 1% of titanium dioxide must be labeled as potentially carcinogenic. Most worrisome, is that

titanium dioxide is carcinogenic through inhalation, which means it does not need to be absorbed by the skin to be potentially dangerous. This is especially troubling given the continued recommendation that titanium oxide be used to protect infants and young children. It remains to be seen if this guidance will be changed in light of the European Commission’s ruling on the cancer-causing risk of titanium-dioxide.

Zinc oxide is the only agent left standing:

Responsible people must still use a sunscreen to help protect themselves and their children from the sun’s harmful rays. Though, after eliminating the chemical sunscreens and titanium oxide, the only product that remains is the mineral sunscreen, zinc oxide. Fortunately, zinc oxide is a good sunscreen, offering full UVA and UVB protection.

Look for a brand of zinc oxide that does not contain certain preservatives including methylparabens (hydroxybenzoates) or phenoxyethanol. An example of a good zinc-oxide based sunscreen is the SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen by Astivita. It is considered hypoallergenic, eco-friendly, and uses mostly natural stabilizers and preservatives.

Stay safe. Limit your time in direct sunlight and, when you do go in the sun, use a zinc oxide sunscreen to protect yourself, your children and the environment.

By Michael Todd Sapko MD, PhD.

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