Recently, Consumer Reports issued an announcement urging parents not to use spray sunscreen, especially on children. The news shattered summer plans for parents around the nation and created a firestorm of social sharing. (Since the Consumer Reports story broke it has continually been one of the most shared articles on the Wall Street Journal website -- showing that parents everywhere are concerned.)
As a parent who has considered spray sunscreen one of the most brilliant inventions of our time, I wanted to know a little bit more about why Consumer Reports would make such a recommendation, and frankly, if there is really cause for such alarm.
Unless you follow geeky legislative rulings, you might have missed an earlier FDA announcement from June 14th where the FDA said they "evaluated data and developed testing and labeling requirements for sunscreen products so that manufacturers can modernize their product information and consumers can be well informed..."
Now, if you don't manufacture sunscreen, this may not seem like all that big of a change, but it has taken years for the FDA to make even these smallest of changes.
However, it was what was at the bottom of the FDA's announcement that was most interesting, and it read as follows:
The Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) will allow the public a period of time to submit requested data addressing the effectiveness and the safety of sunscreen sprays and to comment on possible directions and warnings for sprays that the FDA may pursue in the future, among other issues regarding dosage forms for sunscreens.
To ensure that sunscreen products meet modern safety standards, FDA is also currently reexamining the safety information available for active ingredients included in sunscreens marketed today.
While the FDA was careful to note that they have no reason to believe that any of these existing products are unsafe for consumer use, it would appear that Consumer Reports picked up on the (re)consideration of spray sunscreens and renounced them.
For now, Consumer Reports is primarily talking about the problem with the application of sprays. Especially for fidgety kids. Their warning focuses on the fact that sprays can easily miss spots, rendering them ineffective and even dangerous.
Still, none of this effectively gets at why the FDA might be reviewing the safety and efficacy of spray sunscreens. And frankly, I wanted to know more about whether or not I must give these miracle products up.
Upon further investigation, I found that the major concern with sprays, aerosols and mists are that they contain teensy weensy particles that are so small they can be respiratory irritants and may cause lung damage. According to Friends of the Earth, if the particles are so small that they contain "nanoparticles" they can enter the lungs and/or bloodstream, gaining direct access to our organs and even brains where they can cause significant harm.
While Nanoparticles are relatively new science, they are currently allowed in products around the world. However, some scientists believe there is reason to protect our children from them until we conclusively know more about them.
Children breath more air than adults, and infants can breath as much as two times the amount of air as adults. Meaning, if there is something harmful in the air, kids will get a double dose.
The EWG, in their Sun Safety guide, specifically says to avoid Oxybenzone, as it's readily absorbed into the body and is known to trigger skin allergies. It's also believed to be a hormone-disrupting chemical.
The EWG also warns against Vitamin A (aka Retinyl Palmitate or Retinol), as it has been shown to actually speed up the aging process on people wearing it in the sun.
Then there are multitudes of parabens. Two of the most commonly used, Proplyparaben and Butylparaben, are both endocrine and reproductive toxins. Exposure early in life can lead to fertility issues or cancer in later years.
And those are just a few chemicals that might cause concern for anyone investigating whether or not we should use these products, FDA decision aside.
In my research I also learned that there are very few labeling rules for personal care products. Manufacturers don't even have to reveal all of the ingredients that go into their products as they can hide behind loopholes for "Trade Secrets" or ingredient catch-alls like "fragrance". What's worse is that even if the FDA decides that these spray sunscreens are harmful they cannot actually force manufacturers to do a recall. So essentially, the over $426 billion dollar Personal Care industry is largely left to self-police.
I would remind consumers that just because a product is sold in a well-known store it doesn't mean the product has been vetted by an independent third party for safety. Thus, we are on our own to sleuth for products that are safe for use on ourselves and our families -- including sunscreen.
Given that with proper application there is no clear conclusion, I will try and exercise the precautionary principal. Most days I will choose to follow the EWG guidelines for smart sun practices. But despite the warning, many of the parents I speak to are having a really hard time giving up spray sunscreen -- especially for their kids.
What will you do?