Safety with sunscreen

The weather is getting warmer and soon beaches will be full of sunbathers slathering on sunscreen to protect their skin. However, a new study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) shows sunscreen may not be as effective at preventing skin cancer and may actually be harmful.

Citizens for Sun Protection, an organization partnered with USF Health, advocated for stricter standards for sunscreen from both the FDA and sunscreen product labels in 2007. Since then, higher SPF ratings, such as SPF 70 rather than just SPF 30+have been approved.

EWG uses public data to provide product information to consumers. Its Web site includes the Skin Deep database (, which viewers can use to look up products they use and find out what they contain and whether their ingredients are safe. Each product reviewed has a rating from 1 to 10, based on increasing hazard. The site includes detailed information about 1,099 sunscreens.

According to a report on Skin Deep, many of the most widely used brands of sunscreen products contain harmful ingredients or do not protect skin from harmful UVA rays effectively.

The FDA reports that “the use of sunscreen may not protect against melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.”

It also stated that people who have had five or more sunburns are at a doubled risk for melanoma.

Dr. Mary Lien, assistant professor of dermatology and cutaneous surgery at the USF College of Medicine, said not all sunscreens protect consumers’ skin completely.

“Traditional sunscreens used oxybenzone to protect against UVB rays. New sunscreens have other ingredients like avobenzone and mexoryl that can provide protection from UVB rays,” she said.

EWG reports that the FDA’s labeling policy for sunscreens is voluntary and that companies are not required to report the effectiveness of sunscreen on packaging.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) offers a sun safety guide as part of the Farm Bureau Safety Program. In the guide, the CDC recommends that people look for certain ingredients in sunscreen products, including oxybenzone to ensure protection from ultraviolet rays.

Though the information sounds useful and sunscreen products containing oxybenzone are certainly easy to find, EWG reports that the ingredient may cause allergies, hormone disruption and cell damage.

A study published last year by members of the CDC, which included a disclaimer that the “finding and conclusions represented in the report do not necessarily represent the views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” found that 97 percent of Americans had oxybenzone in their systems.

According to the study, “this high level of detection most likely resulted from routine use of consumer products that contain BP-3 (oxybenzone), such as sunscreen, skin care lotion, lipstick and hair spray.”

Lien said that despitecontroversy, she still recommends sunscreen.

“Even though you can use physical barriers, such as hats and long sleeves, people can still get ultraviolet light radiation because it comes from an angle and it can come through glass and plastic. I also recommend avoiding direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” she said. “But if you look at the risk of not using sunscreen, it’s far greater than using it.”

Lien also said researchers are studying the effectiveness of using different chemicals or adding vitamins to sunscreens to help absorb free radicals and decrease damage to skin.

Skin Deep’s top-rated sunscreens with a risk factor of zero contain zinc and titanium as active ingredients rather than oxybenzone. The worst sunscreens have risk factor of eight and the reports show their ingredients are linked to cancer, developmental or reproductive toxicity, industry violations, allergies and other types of toxicity and irritation.