By Dr. Annie Salsberg, ND –
Even before I became a Naturopath, I was concerned about chemicals in our environment. I remember borrowing some skin cream from a friend while in university and seeing the ingredient list full of words that I had never heard and with names that I could not pronounce. It did not seem right that we should smear gobs of chemical-laden product onto our skin. People seem to get very uptight and concerned when we talk about ingesting (eating) or inhaling (breathing) toxic compounds, but many don’t even seem to bat an eye when we mention the risks associated with trans-dermal (through the skin) absorption of toxins.
With the weather on an up swing, most are (hopefully) reaching for their sunscreen. I thought it might be a great time to review the good, bad and ugly sides of sunscreens!
There are currently two major ‘types’ of sunscreens on the market: 1) chemical sunscreens and 2) mineral sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens penetrate the skin while the latter act as a block to UV rays; mineral sunscreens most commonly contain zinc and/or titanium.
Over the last few years, there has been increasing concern over some of the ingredients included in some chemical sunscreens. Oxybenzone and vitamin A derivatives are two ingredients generating the greatest amount of buzz. Oxybenzone (not to be confused with the safer avobenzone) is an ingredient found in almost half of the chemical sunscreens on the market. It is a synthetic estrogen and is absorbed through the skin; as such, it may disrupt hormones. Some scientists have even called for parents to stop using products containing oxybenzone on children due to concerns around toxicity. Vitamin A derivatives, such as retinyl palmitate or retinol, are also quite common in chemical sunscreens. While vitamin A may have some beneficial anti-oxidant properties when used internally or in some night creams/lotions, recent data seems to suggest that it may be photocarcinogenic. That is, it may actually increase the risk of skin cancer on skin when exposed to sunlight!
While the jury may still be out as to an absolute and final verdict on the safety profile of chemical sunscreens, many are already shying away from creams that penetrate. Furthermore, many international agencies have been recommending clothing, hats and shade as primary protection against sunburns and skin cancer, NOT sunscreen.
Currently, it appears as thought mineral sunscreens offer the best safety profile of products on the market. Mineral sunscreens are stable in sunlight and do not appear to penetrate the skin. The Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/, is a great resource to learn more about the safety profile of many sunscreens. They have recently released their 2011 guide. They also offer a comprehensive database with valuable information on many body care products, including those intended for babies and young children. All of their information is free and easily accessible online.
Stay cool and keep shaded but be sure to enjoy the summer and the sun!