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Farmers Almanac
The 2014 Farmers Almanac
Farmers' Almanac

Are All Sunscreens Safe?

For the last 30 years or more, sunscreen has been a must-have item for outdoor summer fun. Though it was basically nonexistent when I was growing up, we all know now that overexposure to the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer. As our awareness about the dangers of the sun has grown, so too have the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) numbers on many brands of sunscreen. SPF 15 was once seen as a revolutionary leap, but now it’s common to see bottles claiming to be SPF 50, or even 100.

Recently, an organization called the Environmental Working Group has been raising concerns about the safety of most popular sunscreen brands. Their complaints are, in part, directly related to the ever-growing SPF numbers, which they say are misleading and could lead consumers to believe they are more protected than they actually are. The group is also pushing for more brands to include protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Currently, most sunscreen only protects against UVB, the type of rays that cause sunburn, but UVA rays can also damage skin and pose a skin cancer risk. As the dangers of UVA are better understood, more sunscreen brands are beginning to include some protection against it.

More troubling than these issues, though, is the group’s claim that two common sunscreen ingredients – retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone – could actually increase the risk of skin cancer. Oxybenzone is believed to be a “photocarcinogen.” That means it can seep into the skin and, when exposed to sunlight, begin releasing harmful free radicals. It is also believed to be a hormone disruptor, which means it can alter or block the body’s natural hormone systems and create a number of serious illnesses. Retinyl palmitate is a form of vitamin A that could accelerate existing cases of skin cancer.

The claims made by the EWG are disputed by some dermatologists, who say the benefits of using commercial sunscreens outweigh the risks, but until we know all of the facts, it’s probably best to avoid these two chemicals. Most sunscreen brands made from zinc or titanium oxide do not include oxybenzone or retinal palmintate, and while some people also worry about the tiny mineral particles used in non-chemical sunscreens, no studies have been able to demonstrate that zinc or titanium oxide based sunscreens can penetrate healthy, unbroken skin.

No matter what type of sunscreen you use, be sure to reapply often, take shade breaks, wear protective clothing, and avoid being under the sun during the brightest part of the day – from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information about sunscreen safety, or to see a review of your favorite brand, visit the Environmental Working Group’s 2010 Sunscreen Guide.

Have a happy summer, and be careful out there!

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