It’s that time of year when you bring out the sunscreen. After arriving at the lake or before getting in the pool, you lather up the kids with the product you purchased at the drugstore or supermarket. You’re careful not to miss the children’s ears, noses and other sunburn-prone areas and are likely put some on yourself if you plan to be in the sun for more than an hour.
But a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has raised red flags about sunscreens. Particularly at issue is the chemical retinyl palmitate, a vitamin A derivative also known as retin-A, the anti-aging substance. According to Food and Drug Administration research reviewed by EWG, retinyl palmitate, which is added to sunscreen for its anti-aging benefits, may accelerate the development of skin cancer.
In its fourth annual Sunscreen Guide, EWG chided the FDA for failing to issue regulations for sunscreens, pointing out the SPF (sun protection factor) ratings touted by sunscreen manufacturers are confusing and deceptive and that another chemical, oxybenzone, found in many sunscreen products, has been shown to mimic the hormone estrogen.
EWG is a nonprofit organization that reviews federal and other public and private research data on a variety of health and environmental topics with a goal of bringing to light “unsettling facts that you have a right to know,” according to its website, www.ewg.org.
EWG evaluated nearly 1,400 products with SPF labels. Some were creams, others sprays, moisturizers, makeup or lip balms. EWG gave only 39, or 8 percent of the products assessed, a “green light” — the organization’s highest rating — for safety and effectiveness.
Of the 500 sunscreens/sun blocks reviewed, those earning the top rating contained the sun blockers zinc and titanium and no retinyl palmitate; 41 percent, however, contained the vitamin A derivative.
“The concern is the retinyl palmitate is broken down by UV (ultraviolet) light, which hastens the development of skin lesions or tumors,” said Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst based in Colorado. Lunder has a master’s of public health degree in environmental health sciences from the University of California at Berkeley.
The EWG’s report refers to preliminary findings from a one-year study by the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research and the National Toxicology Program. A comparison was done of retinyl palmitate’s effects on UV-exposed hairless mice versus a non retin-A cream used on the same UV-exposed species.
“Depending on dose, tumors and lesions developed from 11 to 21 percent sooner” in the mice treated with retinyl palmitate. “That said, we wouldn’t say the risk in humans is the same, that cancer forms 11 to 21 percent sooner,” Lunder said.
Nevertheless, preliminary results merit further research, she said, pointing out retin-A does nothing to block UV rays and is added by an increasing number of manufacturers as a skin-rejuvenating chemical despite mounting evidence it could cause cancer when exposed to UV light.
Fort Wayne dermatologist Dr. Jeffrey Sassmannshausen says he has concerns the EWG report will lead people to stop using sunscreen. He recently had several patients ask about the retin-A controversy. A study that compares effects of a cream spread on mice to straight retinyl palmitate applied on mice is not comparing apples to apples, he said, pointing out a good study would compare a cream containing the retinyl palmitate with a cream without the ingredient.
“How can you extrapolate this for humans? I don’t see how I can take that information and say how it correlates into sunscreen I’m putting on my face or arms on the weekends,” Sassmannshausen said. “You don’t get cancer by putting on a sunscreen. You get cancer by not putting on sunscreen.”
Still, he admits of the FDA data, “It’s an intriguing finding. I think there’s more study that needs to be done.” His greater concern is the use of tanning beds. He would like to see the FDA take a more aggressive approach to banning their use in those under age 18.
Lunder says EWG is not discouraging use of sunscreen, and the FDA research is “good science.” The organization is raising awareness of the unnecessary and, in some cases, potentially harmful chemicals in sunscreens, she said, concurring more research on retinyl palmitate’s effects is needed.
If it’s safe to use in sunscreens, she asks, why are people who are given anti-aging creams and products containing retin-A warned to avoid prolonged sun exposure? Because this country has less stringent regulations governing sunscreens than many European countries, U.S. consumers have a false sense of confidence in their safety and effectiveness, she said.
Similarly, for years U.S. plastics manufacturers put a chemical called BPA in nearly every plastic household product. Then research showed BPA has similar estrogen-mimicking effects as oxybenzone.
“We’re learning a lot more about the chemicals that mimic the body’s hormones,” Lunder said. Today, baby bottles and toddler drinking cups as well as a growing number of other plastic products no longer contain BPA.
“Our goal is to say, ‘Let’s look at the products on the market. Let’s help you choose which is best,” Lunder said. Consumers need to read labels, to educate themselves on more than just the SPF rating.
“The thing we’re thinking about is, in addition to preventing sunburns, we want to protect from harmful chemicals.”
Sassmannshausen and Lunder concur the FDA should develop a better SPF rating system. The FDA has proposed a star rating system for both kinds of UV rays. SPF ratings tell how long a person can stay in the sun before sunburn occurs from UV-B rays. But no standard has been set to rate risk levels of UV-A rays, the ones linked to cancer.
But the star ratings could be confusing, Lunder said, because the consumer may choose one with a good SPF rating but low in UV-A protection.
The American Academy of Dermatology is pushing for a simplified system that would have three SPF levels: 15; 30; or 30 plus, a contrast to product manufacturers today who advertise SPF anywhere from 10 to 90.
“Sunscreen does a reasonably good job of protecting you from a burn,” Lunder said, “but if you are religiously using it throughout life and are not using the right kind you can still have skin damage.”