Sunscreen usage isn’t without controversy. Although the deeply-bronzed look has slowly gone out of style, skin cancer and premature aging is still prevalent in our society. To add to the confusion, each new study reveals conflicting research as to whether you should even be wearing sunscreen at all. In an attempt to clear this up, the FDA has passed a new set of regulations directed at the sunscreen industry, in order to force consistency in labeling and to protect consumer rights.
The New FDA Regulations
As the next step in their ongoing efforts to ensure consumers are receiving a safe, effective product, the FDA passed a new set of regulations on June 14, 2011, to regulate over-the-counter sunscreens. These new laws do not apply to prescription products and will go into effect next summer.
The major difference with this new set of regulations is that the older guidelines were mainly concerned about a particular sunscreen’s ability to prevent sunburns, something that most products are fairly good at. The problem with this approach is that burning is caused by UVB rays, but skin cancer is caused by both UVA and UVB rays. The new regulations mandate that any product labeled as a broad spectrum sunscreen must protect the consumer from both types of radiation equally. To take this one step further, only sunscreens with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating of 15 or more are able to claim they can prevent sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer.
Here are a few more details about the final FDA regulations:
- Because the FDA felt that the terms waterproof, sweatproof, and sunblock overstated the effectiveness of sunscreen products, these claims are no longer allowed.
- Sunscreen rated less than SPF 15 must specifically state that there is no proof that it prevents either skin cancer or wrinkles.
- New labels must report the water-resistance of the product in hours according to official testing.
- Sunscreen packaging must contain a standard list of “drug facts” on the side or back.
- Cosmetic products and moisturizers that advertise an SPF rating must follow the same regulations as traditional sunscreens.
Additional requirements in the works include a plan to restrict the upper limit on the SPF rating to 50+. This change is warranted due to the fact that the FDA has no information showing that products with an SPF rating higher than 50 offer any additional benefits. If you happen to know how long you can stay in the sun without sunscreen before burning, multiply that number by the SPF to find out how long you should be protected by a specific product. For example, if it takes you 10 minutes to burn without sunscreen, an SPF 15 product should allow you to stay in the sun for about 150 minutes without burning. Of course, you have to use common sense along with the number; sunscreen wears off with exposure to water or sweat and must be reapplied frequently.
The Toxicity of Commercial Sunscreens
Much of the skin damage caused by sun exposure is due to the release of free radicals triggered by the radiation present in both UVA and UVB rays. It’s ironic that the very thing people apply to their skin to prevent the release of free radicals may actually create a chemical reaction that releases another set of the same damaging elements.
Even though the FDA clearly states that the ingredients in commercial sunscreens are perfectly safe, others disagree. Many products contain high amounts of Vitamin A, and the combination of sunlight and a specific form of this vitamin, retinyl palmitate, actually promotes the growth of skin tumors. When sunscreen absorbs the energy from the UV rays and diverts it away from the skin, free radicals are created as the molecules release the absorbed energy.
In practical applications, sunscreen appears to do more good than harm, and some manufacturers include antioxidants in their products to offset the damage. However, it continues to be a delicate balancing act. This following list of chemicals have been approved in the US for use as UV filters in sunscreen products, but they are also known to release free radicals of their own:
- Titanium dioxide
- Zinc oxide
- Padimate O,
- Menthyl anthranilate
- Mexoryl SX
Although many people feel that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are safe ingredients when it comes to sunscreen, that’s not always the case. Many manufacturers are breaking these minerals down into nano particles to make a product that goes on clear instead of white. These items may look more attractive, but they can be dangerous. The smaller particles are quickly absorbed by the skin and can then be toxic to the human body.
The most common chemicals used in non-mineral products, oxybenzone, can cause allergic reactions and act as a hormone disrupter. In fact, many experts claim that sunscreens with this ingredient should never be used on a child’s skin because it is easily absorbed though the skin and can enter the bloodstream.
Natural Options for Sun Safety
If you’d prefer to skip the potential dangers that come with commercial sunscreens, here are a few natural options for sun safety:
- Enjoy the sun early in the day or later in the evening. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- Wear protective clothing, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses with both UVA and UVB protection. New lines of clothing with built-in SPF protection are designed to be cool in the hot weather while protecting the wearer from the sun’s rays.
- Mix your own sunscreen by purchasing zinc oxide at the drugstore and adding it to your favorite lotion. The raw zinc will look white against your skin, but it won’t be absorbed.
- Add plenty of bright-red, vibrant-orange, and deep-green produce to your diet to protect against skin cancer. The carotenoids and lycopene found in these foods have been proven to boost your skin’s natural sun protection.
- View the Environmental Workers Group website, www.ewg.org. This website shows the toxicity levels of all consumer products, including sunscreen. It also provides you with information about which sunscreens have little or no toxins.