Sunscreens have changed the way Americans play. There was a time when tennis players, golfers, swimmers and just about anyone else who needed to be outside was at the mercy of the sun’s rays.
People frequently got bad sunburns or, if they were being prudent, built up a tan gradually in the early summer. Even then, cautious people wore hats and long sleeves if they had to be outside in the middle of the day.
Nowadays you could sunbathe in the nude for 8 hours and not turn pink, provided you slathered on the sunscreen every few hours. Most products block the UVB radiation that causes sunburn.
The very effectiveness of modern sunscreens, which allow people to spend so much time outdoors, has put them at greater risk of exposure to UVA radiation. These rays are less likely to burn the skin, but they can cause long-lasting damage leading to premature aging and skin cancer. Few sunscreens block UVA rays effectively.
Perhaps even more disturbing are reports about toxic ingredients in commonly used sunscreens. Oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3 (BP-3), is found in hundreds of sunscreens, moisturizers, lip balms, conditioners and anti-wrinkle creams.
Animal studies have suggested that oxybenzone may affect the liver and kidneys. More alarming, though, are reports that this chemical may be a hormone disruptor.
There is growing concern that environmental exposure to estrogen-mimicking compounds could alter nervous system development in fetuses, babies or young children. Compounds such as bisphenol A, found in clear, hard plastics, are suspected hormone disruptors. Animal research suggests that prostate or breast tissue exposed at a vulnerable time might be at increased risk of cancer later in life.
If BP-3 acts in a similar way, parents might want to think twice before slathering this sunscreen ingredient on their babies’ skin. The compound is absorbed through the skin. New research reveals that 97 percent of Americans studied between 2003 and 2004 had BP-3 in their bodies (Environmental Health Perspectives, July, 2008).
So what’s a parent to do? According to the Environmental Working Group, an independent non-profit collaboration of scientists, people should avoid sunscreens with BP-3 and seek sunscreens that contain the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
These compounds are not absorbed through the skin and do not have any hormonal activity. Instead they provide mechanical protection from both UVA and UVB radiation.
For more information about our favorite sunscreens, sunless tanning products and medicines that may make the skin more sensitive to a sunburn we offer our new Guide to Skin Care and Treatment.
It is sad that after almost 30 years of discussion, the FDA has still not established safety standards for sunscreens. Europeans have access to a wider range of effective products to block both UVA and UVB radiation. Don’t Americans deserve the same?