Sunscreen should be just one tool in your arsenal. These eight little-known facts about sunscreens will help you spot problem products and avoid getting burned.
1. There’s no proof that sunscreens prevent most skin cancer.
Rates of melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – have tripled over the past 35 years. Most scientists and public health agencies – including the Food and Drug Administration itself – have found very little evidence that sunscreen prevents most types of skin cancer.
2. Don’t be fooled by high SPF.
High-SPF products tempt people to apply too little sunscreen and stay in the sun too long. The FDA has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values greater than 50+, calling higher SPF values “inherently misleading,” but it has not yet issued a regulation that carries the force of law. Ten percent of sunscreens we evaluated this year advertised SPF values greater than 50+.
3. The common sunscreen additive vitamin A may speed development of skin cancer.
The sunscreen industry adds a form of vitamin A to 14 percent of beach and sport sunscreens, 15 percent of moisturizers with SPF, and 6 percent of lip products with SPF in this year’s database.
Retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant that combats skin aging. But studies by federal government scientists indicate that it may trigger development of skin tumors and lesions when used on skin in the presence of sunlight. Other governments warn that cosmetics may contribute to unsafe amounts of vitamin A, and recommend against using vitamin A-laden cosmetics on the lips and over large portions of the body. We recommend that consumers avoid sunscreens, lip products and skin lotions that contain vitamin A or retinyl palmitate, which is also called retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol.
4. European sunscreens provide better UVA protection.
Nearly every sunscreen sold in the U.S. claims to offer “broad spectrum” protection, which suggests they shield against harmful UVA rays. But many products are too weak to be sold in Europe, where standards are higher. In Europe, sunscreen makers can formulate their products with four chemicals that offer stronger protection from UVA rays. American manufacturers have been waiting for years for FDA approval to use these sunscreen ingredients. The FDA has asked for more safety data, but until the FDA approves these ingredients and lifts restrictions on combining certain active ingredients, Americans will not be able to buy sunscreens with the strongest UVA protection.
5. Sunscreen doesn’t protect skin from all types of sun damage.
SPF measures protection from sunburn, but not other types of skin damage. The sun’s ultraviolet rays also generate free radicals that damage DNA and skin cells, accelerate skin aging and may cause skin cancer. American sunscreens can reduce these damages, but not as effectively as they prevent sunburn. People can run into problems if they pick a sunscreen with poor UVA protection, apply too little or reapply it infrequently. Sunscreen companies commonly add SPF boosters that inhibit sunburn but may not protect from other damages. The FDA should strengthen its regulations to ensure that sunscreens offer the best possible skin protection.
6. Some sunscreen ingredients disrupt hormones and cause skin allergies.
Sunscreen is designed to be applied to large portions of the body, several times per day. Sunscreen ingredients soak through skin and can be detected in people’s blood, urine and even mothers’ breast milk. Several commonly used ingredients appear to block or mimic hormones, and others cause allergic reactions on sensitive skin. The FDA’s sunscreen rules grandfathered in sunscreen active ingredients that were already on the market. The agency has never reviewed evidence of ill effects of sunscreen ingredients.
7. Mineral sunscreens contain nanoparticles.
Most zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based sunscreens contain nanoparticles one-twentieth the width of a human hair, to reduce or eliminate the chalky white tint that larger particles leave on the skin. Based on the available information, We give a favorable rating to mineral ingredients in sunscreens, but the FDA should restrict the use of unstable or UV-reactive forms of minerals that would lessen skin protection.
8. If you avoid sun, check your vitamin D levels.
Sunshine causes the body to produce vitamin D, a critical function that sunscreen appears to inhibit. Vitamin D, technically a hormone, strengthens bones and the immune system and reduces risks of breast, colon, kidney and ovarian cancers, and perhaps other disorders.
About 25 percent of Americans have borderline low levels of vitamin D, and 8 percent have a serious deficiency. Breast-fed infants, people with darker skin and people who have limited sun exposure are at greatest risk of vitamin D deficiency. Many people can’t or shouldn’t rely on the sun for vitamin D. Check with your doctor to find out whether you should be tested for deficiency, or should take seasonal or year-round supplements.