We Have (Almost) Nothing to Fear From Sunscreen

Be wary of oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, but don't panic about either. Studies prove they hurt mice, not babies.

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mother putting sunscreen on daughter's face

Most parents are keenly aware of the potential hazards posed to young childrens’ skin by chemicals contained in common sunscreens. Savvy fathers and mothers avoid lotions tainted with oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate, opting for natural alternatives such as mineral sunscreens. They’re looking after their kid’s epidermis, right?

That’s certainly what the Environmental Working Group would like consumers to believe. A well-funded non-profit, EWG releases a sunscreen guide every summer that includes rankings for various sunscreen brands. Parents love it. The media loves it even more (tens of thousands of readers flock to these stories). But a lot of the information touted by EWG is not based on evidence, and some of the lowest-ranked products may actually deserve a second look.

Many of the “chemicals” in sunscreen are not nearly as scary as EWG makes them out to be. Take retinyl palmitate, for instance. EWG warns that “Government test data shows more skin tumors and lesions on animals treated with this ingredient and exposed to sunlight.” EWG duly suggests that parents avoid the additive, which is a form of vitamin A. The inclusion of retinyl palmitate in a sunscreen results in “several strikes,” dropping it down the EWG rankings.

But the “government test data” in question is from a mouse study and, specifically, a mouse study that never went through peer-review. As the Skin Cancer Foundation puts it: “There is no scientific evidence that retinyl palmitate causes cancer in humans. The research that generated the controversy is an unpublished 10-year-old study in mice, far from proof of anything in humans. In fact, retinoids are commonly prescribed by dermatologists, and no published data suggests that topical retinoids increase skin cancer risk. Oral retinoids are often prescribed to help prevent skin cancers in people at high risk of the disease!” In a scientific, data-driven context, that statement is as close as an organization can get to cussing another organization out.

And the SCF isn’t alone in targeting EWR for potentially spreading false information. The American Academy of Dermatologists, eager to resolve the issue, conducted its own analysis in 2010 that confirmed the safety of retinyl palmitate. “The Environmental Working Group issued a health warning that sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate could pose a cancer risk,” coauthor Henry W. Lim of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit said in a statement at the time. “Our report should help dismiss the misinformation that sunscreens are not safe, as sunscreens are vitally important in reducing your risk for skin cancer, not causing it.”

Oxybenzone has a similar story. Of all sunscreen chemicals, EWG claims it is “the most worrisome.” Specifically, EWG lobbyists say that oxybenzone causes skin reactions and that, as an estrogen, it that can have “potent anti-androgenic effects.” Anti-androgens, by the way, can cause breast development, sexual dysfunction, and infertility in men. So EWG is making a significant claim and, naturally, assigning “several strikes” against sunscreens that contain the stuff.

But doctors and scientists are not convinced. “I recommend sunscreens with oxybenzone wholeheartedly,” Kate Puttgen, a pediatric dermatologist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore told MedPage Today. “I haven’t seen any data that suggest the miniscule amount of absorption causes any risks.” That is likely because the data doesn’t exist. “Oxybenzone…is excreted, making significant buildup virtually impossible,” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. “[We] reviewed the studies as well, finding no basis for concern about the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone.”

The AAD agrees that oxybenzone is safe, and adds that it is one of the few FDA-approved ingredients available that provides broad-spectrum protection from UV radiation. “Available peer-reviewed scientific literature and regulatory assessments from national and international bodies do not support a link between oxybenzone in sunscreen and hormonal alterations, or other significant health issues in humans,” said Dr. Daniel Siegel, former president of the AAD. “The FDA has approved oxybenzone in sunscreen for use on children older than six months.”

As if that weren’t enough, EWG assigns points to “natural” mineral sunscreens, because they are “stable in sunlight, offer a good balance between protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation—UVA and UVB—and don’t often contain potentially harmful additives.” But, earlier this month, Consumer Reports released a scathing review of mineral sunscreens, claiming that “products in this category have consistently performed less effectively in our testing than their chemical cousins,” pointing out that only two mineral sunscreens tested within 85 percent of the SPF on the label, and that none merited a UVB protection ranking higher than “fair.”

In other words, the EWG is giving high ratings to mineral sunscreens that probably don’t work, while giving lower ratings to sunscreens that can protect kids from skin cancer because they happen to contain chemicals that sound scary (and that have, admittedly, hurt some mice).

Unfortunately, EWG has a long history of calling out chemicals that are actually safe. They even contributed to a vaccine scare in 2004, releasing a paper promoting the entirely unscientific idea that mercury in vaccines causes autism. And there’s a growing market for just the brand of pseudoscience that calls anything lab-grown “dangerous” and lines the pockets of companies that sell organic, GMO-free, “natural” foods and cosmetics. It is not unthinkable that EWG recognizes a donor base when it sees one, and perhaps this explains why the lobbyists continue to pander to nervous parents and people who are afraid of sunscreens that have ingredients that wouldn’t fit into a fruit salad. It is also not unthinkable that the people behind EWG are genuinely concerned, but struggling to keep up with the science. Given the lack of a list disclosing the sources of the organization’s funding, it’s hard to know.

Still, it’s worth noting that EWG does get some details right. They decry spray-on sunscreen as often misused (True!), call out SPFs above 50 as worthless (True!) and, at the end of the day, they’re encouraging people to put on sunscreen, which absolutely does help. And, as long as consumers ignore EWG’s chemical hysteria, anything that promotes sunscreen is probably a good thing.

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