What to Look Out for When It Comes to Sunscreen Safety

After surviving thyroid cancer and a melanoma, I was determined to find a sunscreen that did the job without unnecessary exposure to toxins.
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We all have our own reasons for abiding by the precautionary principle when it comes to sunscreen -- acting to prevent harm when evidence indicates that something may be harmful. Some of us may be cancer survivors, some may have had a melanoma and some are parents of young children. I happen to be all three.

After surviving thyroid cancer and a melanoma, I was determined to find a sunscreen that did the job without unnecessary exposure to toxins. Over three years ago, my search led me to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database where I found some excellent products. I now have a company that manufactures sunscreen and I live and breathe the topic.

As a consumer and a manufacturer, I am grateful for what organizations like the EWG and Good Guide have done to build awareness that what goes on your skin goes into your body. They do so much with limited budgets to highlight toxins in the environment and in our personal care products. That said, they are currently recommending some products in their guides that, knowing what I do about sunscreen, I would not consider putting on myself or my kids -- and certainly not a baby. For example, a sunscreen "for babies" made with titanium dioxide, nanoparticles and BHT is on the EWG's recommended list with a top rating. I personally find this concerning as there are studies that suggest that all three ingredients are toxic.

When it comes to definitively linking an ingredient to a harmful outcome, scientific standards require rigorous testing procedures that are difficult to fund. As a consequence, not enough is known about sunscreen ingredient safety. I believe that it is time for us to shift toward using products made with ingredients that are known to be harmless rather than risking exposure to ingredients that have not passed the safety test.

This sunscreen "for babies" may be one of the better mainstream choices available, but as a mom who is committed to abiding by the precautionary principle, I find its inclusion on that list misleading. When a parent goes to the EWG or the Good Guide to evaluate product choices, they are looking for advice. Why would they then want to put a sunscreen on a baby, or anyone for that matter, made with titanium dioxide, when studies have led the American Cancer Society to list titanium dioxide among the top five suspected carcinogens "whose potential to cause cancer is as yet unresolved"? Some of us will hold cell phones to our ears until it is proven that they cause brain cancer, others prefer to lessen our risk with a headset. I know that I am not alone in my desire to avoid ingredients that are even potentially toxic.

There is an urgent need for clearer direction regarding sunscreen safety and efficacy. It is unfortunate that the most extensive studies regarding sunscreen safety tend to be funded by large skin care manufacturers who understandably resist change, which is costly and time consuming. As a result, the list of sunscreen ingredients that are proven toxic is unlikely to grow in the near future.

The EWG does a good job of highlighting studies that indicate the potential toxicity of many ingredients. With more funding, they could back up their concerns with irrefutable research. Our support of innovative watchdog organizations like the EWG is essential in order to help a lightly regulated personal care industry evolve. While we are forced to rely on limited research, it would be helpful if we were provided with two categories of recommendations: the best and the better options available. This way, watchdog organizations could meet the needs of two different and important sub-groups: consumers who seek the safest options and those who are happy to buy the least toxic mass products.

In the meantime, here are my thoughts on the sunscreen ingredients to look for and to avoid.

Look for:

Sunscreens made with non-nano zinc oxide:
• It provides the best broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection.
• Non-nano zinc oxide is so safe that the FDA says it is okay to use on babies under 6 months old for diaper rash.


Chemical sunscreens (for example oxybenzone, octyl methoxycinnamate):
• Chemical sunscreens degrade more quickly than non-nano zinc oxide when exposed to UV rays, generating free radicals which accelerate aging of the skin.
• Oxybenzone is a known allergen, photosensitizer and is suspected of being an endocrine disruptor.

Titanium Dioxide:
• If it is absorbed dermally or ingested where does it go? There are concerns about what the body does with an ingredient that it is unequipped to process. Babies are especially at risk because their skin is thinner, they frequently put their hands in their mouth, and they do not have well developed processes of elimination.
• Depending on the type of titanium dioxide (TiO2) and how it is processed TiO2 can degrade more quickly when exposed to UV than non nano zinc oxide, generating free radicals.
• The American Cancer Society has identified TiO2 as one of the top five potential cancer-causing substances that requires further study.

• With nanoparticles on the smaller end of the scale, around 50nm, behavior becomes unpredictable. They should be avoided until they are more carefully regulated.

• Tests show that 95 percent of fragrances are contaminated with cancer causing aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene.

• It is a photosensitizer and an allergen.

• To avoid inhalation of potentially harmful ingredients.

• They mimic the hormone estrogen, which is known to play a role in the development of breast cancers.

There are many manufacturers out there who will say that there is not enough scientific evidence to prove that the above ingredients are toxic. I agree with them! I am simply not willing to jeopardize my health or the health of my family with exposure to ingredients that are toxic or even potentially toxic -- especially when better alternatives exist.

Hillary Peterson is the CEO of Marie Veronique Organics and, in the words of her children, a sunscreen activist.