What's So Toxic About Sunscreen? (Endocrine Disruption and Allergic Reaction)
Sunscreens block sun using either chemical or mineral (physical) filters. Unfortunately, any of these filters can pose a risk to human health; fortunately, the mineral filters seem to pose much less of a concern.
Several of the chemical filters are "endocrine disrupters," meaning they disrupt normal hormone function in the body, and several pose a high risk for allergic reaction. The concerns with the mineral filters (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are limited, for now, to inhalation concerns (which is why spray sunscreens are not recommended, even if they are "safe" and "natural;" see below). For more detailed information, refer to this chart put together by the EWG.
What's an Endocrine Disrupter?
This is an umbrella term for anything that throws off the normal hormone balance and functioning of the body. The list of symptoms and disorders that can result from hormone dysregulation is vast. Specifically, the sunscreen chemicals researched by the EWG were found:
- To disrupt sperm production (animal studies);
- To be associated (meaning not proven to cause) with endometriosis in women;
- To mimic estrogen in the body (not just a problem for men);
- To disrupt thyroid and reproductive system functioning (animal studies); and finally,
- To cause behavioral problems (animal studies).
Mineral Sunscreen to the Rescue?
Not necessarily. While mineral filters do have a better safety profile, you still have to be aware of the other ingredients in the sunscreen: certain ingredient combinations can cause a problem, and many "inactive" ingredients are less than ideal. In fact, a whole host of problems can be associated with inactive ingredients. The EWG database addresses the safety of inactive as well as active ingredients. The EWG asserts that we need increased (FDA) regulation of these mineral sunscreens, and more research, before we can be sure that we are using the safest and most effective products. But for now, it states that mineral sunscreens are nevertheless the safer option. For more information on mineral sunscreen safety, read this article.
Bottom line: don't use them. The FDA, Consumer Reports, and the EWG all have concerns regarding the safety of allowing kids to inhale the ingredients in these sunscreens, no matter how "safe" or "natural" they may be. Why? In a nutshell, these chemicals have been studied for safety as applied on the skin; they have not been adequately studied for exposure via inhalation, a much more direct exposure than skin absorption. Some studies have shown them to be dangerous when inhaled.
Parents talk about how well their favorite sunscreen rubs in to the skin, and I'm sure some do better than others. However, of the 4 that I have personally tried, none of them rub in any better than the other. We look like ghosts for at least 10 minutes after applying. So don't expect much - in my experience if it's a truly safe, natural product, it's not going to rub in well; it's going to absorb in slowly over time. Take it as a reminder to apply well before going outside, which is what we should be doing for maximum efficacy anyway.
So How Do I Choose the Right Product?
The information available to us as sunscreen consumers is both vast and overwhelming, and frustratingly lacking. I rely heavily on the research done by EWG in choosing sunscreens for my family. I basically familiarize myself with their top rated products, and then make a final choice based on cost, availability, and what I do know of the ingredients. They have not let me down yet.
What If I Use a Poorly Rated Sunscreen?
Don't get me wrong. I believe that, in a pinch, any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen. Skin cancer rates (melanoma) are on the rise. Sun exposure does appear to increase risk for melanoma. So if your choice that day is avoid the beach, get a sunburn, or wear a poorly rated sunscreen, then wear the poorly rated sunscreen. But for the sunscreen that you will apply to your child, or yourself, day in and day out, I think it pays to find the safest one you can.
The Best Protection
Sunscreen is not the only factor in the sun safety equation. Other important sun safety tips include:
- Avoid it: Avoid sun exposure between the hours of about 10 and 3.
- Shade it: Wear a broad brimmed hat that shades the face, ears, and neck. They make great ones for kids that tie around the chin, contain SPF, and can be worn in the water.
- Wear it: Wear protective clothing - long sleeve shirts and light pants are your best bet when possible. There are long sleeve "rash guards" for kids that can be worn in the water and contain SPF.
- Protect the eyes: Wear UV blocking sunglasses.
- Do it right: Sunscreen should be "broad spectrum" meaning it blocks UVA and UVB rays. It should be applied at least 15 minutes before going outside. It should be reapplied frequently, as per package directions.
- Don't tan: All the evidence points to tanning beds being dangerous; don't use them, and don't allow your kids to use them.
Note: The long held belief that using sunscreen decreases your risk for melanoma has become slightly controversial of late. The controversy is outside the realm of this post, and I believe that protecting your child from prolonged sun exposure, and using sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, is one of the best ways to keep her safe from melanoma.
I have no affiliations or financial interests to disclose. This post does not constitute medical advice.