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Summer Alert: Don’t get burned, use the EWG database of safer sunscreens

June 9th, 2011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

If you want to protect your skin from the sun this summer, get ready to squint at the fine print on those sunscreens lined up at the local drug store — according to an analysis by a consumer advocacy group only one in five are both safe and effective.

Beach outings call for safe and effective sunscreens. (Photo: rsaulyte/dreasmstime.com.)

The Environmental Working Group’s 5th annual Sunscreen Report reviewed 600 sport and beach sunscreens, and found that just 129 of them could be counted on to exclude toxic compounds and also provide reliable broad spectrum sun protection.

Among the products that failed to make the cut are many familiar brands, like Neutrogena, Hawaiian Tropics, Coppertone, Revlon, Panama Jack, Bullfrog and even some brands billed as being more eco-friendly, like Nature’s Gate Organics.

It’s no surprise then that the Personal Care Products Council, which represents some 6,000 producers of personal products, immediately shot down the EWG report, saying it contains “assertions about the safety and efficacy of sunscreen products and ingredients lack the rigor and reliability of formal, expert evaluation, are not peer-reviewed, and confuse and alarm consumers.” The PCPC response was lengthy and detailed, accusing EWG of loose science as well as questioning whether EWG should link to Amazon, where the group can earn a small affiliate fee when consumers buy some of the products listed in its sunscreen database.

The EWG maintains that its report is based on sufficient scientific inquiry by a team of scientists as well as published literature on the topic, which points to specific problems with ingredients found in many sunscreens. The group has made its methodology transparent online.

A senior analyst for the group also responded to the criticism that EWG, a non-profit, was benefiting from the sale of products by noting that EWG’s database links to all the products it reviewed, the good and the bad, and that the affiliate agreement with Amazon has no bearing on which products EWG scientists single out as safer. Such affiliate agreements are standard for nonprofits, she said, adding that once a person links to Amazon from EWG, the nonprofit gets a small credit for purchases whether the user buys a sunscreen or a coffeemaker.

In reviewing a full range of 1,700 sun protection products, including sunscreens, lip balms and cosmetics as well as the 600 beach sunscreens – EWG found that hundreds of them contained two potentially harmful ingredients: oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. (See the study’s summary for more.)

Skin cream users may recognize the latter as a derivative of Vitamin A, often found in anti-acne or anti-aging creams.

Retinyl A can have positive effects, according to the EWG researchers. But used in sunscreens it can harmful.

“It’s unstable and sunlight breaks it down into products that are actually toxic to skin,” said EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder

That’s according to a one year cancer study by the National Toxicology Program, which found that lab animals exposed to a skin cream with retinyl palmitate and UVB sunlight experienced skin lesions and tumors that exceeded that of a control group. The study, published in January, found that retinyl palmitate enhanced this “photocarcinogenicity activity” in the lab mice.

EWG's sunscreen report can help you find safer products.

EWG’s review found that about 30 percent of sunscreens contain retinyl palmitate, presumably included because it plumps the skin and diminishes wrinkles, despite the fact that doctors often recommend that people using anti-aging or anti-acne creams containing Vitamin A should avoid the sun.

Those who want the benefits of Vitamin A should wear it at night, or when out of the sun, Lunder said; “It has some skin benefits but it’s poorly suited for these products.”

As part of its criticism of the report, the Personal Care Products Council, noted that retinyl palmitate is used in an array of skin products, and claimed that the National Toxicology study connecting increased skin lesions with retinyl palmitate was flawed and showed mixed results.

“Unfortunately, EWG has inappropriately used these findings to alarm consumers by telling them that products containing retinyl palmitate, including sunscreens, may not be safe.  Their position is simply not supported by the available scientific data,” the PCPC response stated.

Oxybenzone, the other questionable ingredient found in the products sampled by EWG, serves as a sunscreen in the creams and lotions in which it’s found. But studies show that it penetrates the skin deeply and once inside the body acts as an endocrine disruptor.

There are not many studies of how oxybenzone disrupts human biology, but the studies that have been done suggest that this slightly estrogenic chemical could negatively affect the reproductive system and  brain development, among other effects, Lunder said.

Rather than risk problems from oxybenzone – a chemical found in about 90 percent of Americans according to studies  – consumers should choose from among the many sunscreens on the market that rely on other active ingredients to block the sun, Lunder said. She noted that several other scientists have concluded that people should forgo using oxybenzone on children, because it could cause health problems.

The Personal Products industry group also took issue with EWG’s citing oxybenzone as a problem. The industry group called the ingredient “safe for use as a photo stabilizer (to protect the formulation) in cosmetic products” and said that scientific data does not “support a link between UV filter exposure and endocrine-disruptive effects in humans.”

“EWG also alleges a connection between UV filters found in sunscreens and hormone or endocrine disruption, but to date, available scientific data does not support a link between UV filter exposure and endocrine-disruptive effects in humans.

The two ingredients to look for in sunscreens are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, Lunder said. These two minerals work well to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays – providing what’s often called “broad spectrum” protection. They’re not harmful and they are stable in the sunscreen formulations. All of the EWG’s top sunscreens use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as their main active ingredient.

Even though some environmentalists have raised concerns about nanoparticles in cosmetics, including those containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, the EWG has concluded that there’s little cause for concern.  Even if some personal product makers are using nanoparticles or “micro” particles that could be defined as nano-sized, “minerals just don’t penetrate deeply enough” to do harm, Lunder said.

If zinc oxide did pervade the body, it would end up as zinc, she said, a mineral that’s deemed desirable (at modest levels).

While the mineral-based sunscreens provided the best protection — which was maximized at 30 spf, the highest protection that a person can get despite marketing claims of 70 spf and more — the EWG also provided a list of less toxic products that do not use these chemicals. The secondary list is for people who don’t like the consistency or smell of products with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

The mineral-based sunscreens, though, are the most reliable and can be counted on to protect children, but only if they’re used in adequate amounts, Lunder said. Most people don’t realize, she said, that they should use an ounce of sunscreen lotion for every two hours in the sun.

That’s why the EWG wants to debunk the products that seem to promise users protection beyond what’s realistic, such as the sunscreens that are marketed as having 50, 70 or even 100 spf.

People should realize that there’s no magic bullet in a sunscreen, and not rely on creams or lotions (sprays are not recommended because of inhalant risks) to guard against sun burn, an ultimately skin cancer.

Everyone should stay out of the noonday sun and use clothing as sun protection on a daily basis, Lunder said.

“Sunscreen should be part of your arsenal of sun protection. It shouldn’t be your first line of defense.”

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network



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