RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Sunscreens should protect us from skin cancer, not cause it. But just this week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) revealed that the Food and Drug Administration has been reviewing studies that suggest a possible association between a popular sunscreen ingredient and an increase risk of developing skin cancer. "With the recent reports suggesting a possible link between skin cancer and a common chemical found in sunscreens, the FDA must act now to protect consumers in New York and across the nation," Sen. Schumer said. "Summer is here, people are soaking up the sun and the FDA needs to immediately provide guidance and reassurance to consumers. When it comes to the health and safety of the public, there is no room for delay."
In the meantime, we want you to know that there are very effective, chemical-free ways to protect yourself from the sun, too. And they may prove to be much safer than sunscreen alone.
THE DETAILS: The sunscreen chemical in question is retinyl palmitate, a common sunscreen additive—a vitamin A derivative—found in about 500 of the most popular sunscreens, or more than 40 percent of the sunscreen products, used in the U.S. Studies from both the the National Center for Toxicological Research and the National Toxicology Program have suggested a possible link between skin cancer and retinyl palmitate. In one study, tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent faster in lab animals coated in retinyl palmitate-laced cream than animals treated with a cream that did not contain the ingredient.
But that's not the only sunscreen ingredient that has caused concerns of late.
In the U.S., there are two classes of sunblock to choose from: chemical and mineral. Environmental Working Group regards mineral sunscreens (zinc and titanium) as safer because they do not appear to fully penetrate the skin and they remain stable in sunlight. Still, many contain poorly-studied nanoparticles that some scientists believe can cause damage by crossing the blood-brain barrier. On the other hand, many chemical-based sunscreens are known hormone disruptors (oxybenzone is a big one), and have been linked to cancer and other health problems.
WHAT IT MEANS: It's not an all or nothing approach. In fact, the best approach may be to incorporate different types of skin protection. Sometimes, sunblock will be your best option. But many times, you'll find that sun protection clothing may be a better fit. And you may be surprised to learn that the International Agency for Research on Cancer recommends clothing, hats, and shade as a first-line of defense against UV rays. They agency even notes that "sunscreens should not be the first choice for skin cancer prevention and should not be used as the sole agent for protection against the sun." And many dermatologists and public health officials, although they likely won't tell you to shun sunscreen, agree that using a multi-faceted approach to avoid UV sun damage and skin cancer is key. The general rule of thumb is to avoid sun exposure when the rays are harshest—between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. "Stay in the shade during peak sun hours, and remember that ultraviolet radiation cannot be felt or seen," explains David J. Leffell, MD, professor of dermatology and surgery at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. "It is not equivalent to heat, so even on a hazy day, UV reaches the Earth."