Ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth as UVA and UVB light, and has been classified as a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) (National Toxicology Program, 2000). UVA is generally considered to be less carcinogenic than UVB. Originally, it was believed UVB light was more dangerous, thus sunscreen products were first developed to filter UVB and not UVA. However, recent research has demonstrated UVA radiation actually plays an important role in the development of malignant melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer.
Skin Cancer on the Rise - No Proof That Sunscreen Prevents Skin Cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970s, from 7.9 per 100,000 people in 1975 to 25.2 per 100,000 in 2014 (National Cancer Institute, 2017). A similar trend can be observed in regards to melanoma death rate for white American men, the highest risk group, which has escalated sharply, from 2.6 deaths per 100,000 in 1975 to 4.4 in 2014. From 2003 to 2012, the rates of new melanoma cases among both men and women have been increased by 1.7 and 1.4 percent per year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016).
While the exact cause of melanoma is unknown, researchers have established that risk factors for melanoma include family history, indoor tanning, the number of moles on a person’s skin, fair skin, freckles, blue or green eyes, blonde or red hair and a history of severe sunburns, among others (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017). People are able to modify only three of these risk factors: indoor tanning, exposure to UV radiation and severe sunburns.
In December 2012, the Food and Drug Administration began to enforce new laws designed to improve sunscreens and consumer protection. The new laws restrict certain bogus label claims, but they allow most sunscreens to advertise “broad spectrum” skin protection. Sunscreen manufacturers are permitted to tell consumers, that with proper use, their products can help reduce the risk of skin cancer. However, the FDA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have concluded that the available data does not support the assertion that sunscreens alone reduce the rate of skin cancer (Food and Drug Administration, 2011; IARC 2001).
It's Not the Sunscreen, It's the Additives
Recent research by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found 96% of the U.S. population has oxybenzone in their bodies, a common chemical used in sunscreens; a chemical that is a known endocrine disruptor, linked to reduced sperm count in men and endometriosis in women (Environmental Working Group, 2017).
Researchers have observed that adults who put on sunscreen containing 4% oxybenzone (the US allows up to 6%) in the morning and evening—mimicking what they’d do while on vacation—continued to excrete the chemical in their urine for five days afterwards, suggesting that it was being stored in the body (Gustavsson Gonzalez, Farbrot & Larko, 2002).
Aside from oxybenzone — which is found in 70% of sunscreens — other commonly used chemicals that can enter your bloodstream and can cause toxic side effects, including hormone disruption, include but are not limited to:
Other chemicals, such as retinyl palmitate, may actually increase your risk of developing skin cancer. This product is a form of vitamin A that may speed the development of tumors and lesions when exposed to sunlight (National Toxicology Program, 2012).
It is also advised to avoid using personal care products that contain synthetic fragrance, as this term describes any number of harmful chemicals that do not have to be listed individually on the label. Some common "fragrance" chemicals include:
Mineral Sunscreens May Contain Nanoparticles
Mechanical sunscreens, including zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, have proven over years of use to be safe and effective mechanisms for blocking both UVA and UVB light. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) - a non-profit environmental organization that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of toxic chemicals, agricultural subsidies, public lands, and corporate accountability - sunscreens made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are better alternatives because they provide strong sun protection with few health concerns and they don’t break down in the sun. Zinc oxide is EWG’s first choice for sun protection. Most studies to date have shown that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are safe and unlikely to penetrate your skin when applied topically, as long as they are not nanosized. However, in an attempt to meet the desire of their consumers for products that don't leave a thick film on the skin, some manufacturers have reduced the size of the molecules, creating nanoparticles (microscopic particles measuring less than 100 nanometers).
This nanotechnology has several different effects. Some are concerned that the particles have become so small that they may be absorbed directly into your skin. Although mixed, some studies have found significant negative health effects from the absorption of nanoparticles (European Union Public Health, 2006). While these nanoparticle technologies may make an excellent drug delivery system, it is questionable for use in sunscreen (De Jong & Borm, 2008).
Titanium dioxide is more effective in UVB range and zinc oxide in the UVA range, therefore the combination of these particles assures a broad-band UV protection (Smijs & Pavel, 2011). Zinc oxide is beneficial because it remains stable in heat, but as a nanoparticle, the problems with toxicity probably outweigh the benefits to sun protection. Upon systemic distribution, toxicity of zinc oxide nanoparticles may affect the lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach, pancreas, spleen, heart and brain (Tian et al., 2015). Findings have also demonstrated that aging has a synergistic effect with zinc oxide nanoparticles on systemic inflammation and neurotoxicity, affecting your brain and neurological system. In other words, the older you are, the higher your risk of neurotoxicity from zinc oxide nanoparticle absorption.
Spray-on sunscreens, containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, pose an additional hazard by releasing these toxic nanoparticles into the air. The FDA has previously expressed concern that inhaling these products may be risky, especially to children, and has warned parents to avoid spray-on sunscreens (Food and Drug Administration, 2006).
While these two minerals are the safest topical sunscreen agents around, inhaling them is a whole different story. When these minerals are inhaled, they have been shown to irritate lung tissues and potentially lead to serious health problems, and the finer the particles, the worse their effects appear to be (Grassian, O’Shaughnessy, Adamcakova-Dodd, Pettibone & Thorne, 2006). The lungs have difficulty clearing small particles, and the particles may pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. Insoluble nanoparticles that penetrate skin or lung tissue can cause extensive organ damage. Some researchers speculate that the toxic effects of nanoparticles relate to their size being in the range of a virus, which may trigger your body's immune response (Buzea, Pacheco Blandino & Robbie, 2007).
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified titanium dioxide as a "possible carcinogen" when inhaled in high doses. According to IARC:
"Titanium dioxide causes varying degrees of inflammation and associated pulmonary effects including lung epithelial cell injury, cholesterol granulomas and fibrosis. Rodents experience stronger pulmonary effects after exposure to ultrafine titanium dioxide particles compared with fine particles on a mass basis (IARC, 2006).
The use of nanoparticles in cosmetics poses a regulatory challenge because the properties of nanoparticles may vary tremendously, depending on their size, shape, surface area and coatings. A number of manufacturers sell products advertised as containing “non-nano” zinc oxide and titanium dioxide - these claims are generally misleading. While particle sizes vary among manufacturers, nearly all would be considered nanomaterials under a broad definition of the term, including the definition proposed in 2011 by the Food and Drug Administration (Food and Drug Administration, 2011b). According to the available information, these mineral sunscreens must be delivered in nanoparticle form to render a layer that is reasonably transparent on the skin.
According to EWG, even with the existing uncertainties, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide lotions are among the best choices on the American market. Here’s why:
Currently, all available evidence suggests that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be safely used in sunscreen lotions applied to healthy skin and pose a lower hazard than most other approved sunscreen ingredients.
More human studies need to be conducted in regards to the health effects of inhaling of zinc oxide particles, especially at lower levels, such as from brief exposure to sunscreen spray. However, using these spray-on products are clearly an unnecessary risk since safer options are readily available. Your safest bet is to use topical zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that does not contain nanosized particles.
High SPF is "Inherently Misleading"
In theory, applying sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 100 would allow sunbathers to be exposed to the sun 100 times longer before suffering a sunburn. For example, an individual who would normally redden after 30 minutes in the afternoon sun could theoretically stay out for 50 hours.
But for high-SPF sunscreens, theory and reality are two different things. Researchers have observed that people are misled by the claims on high-SPF sunscreen bottles. They are more likely to use high-SPF products improperly and as a result may expose themselves to more harmful ultraviolet radiation than people relying on products with lower SPF values. The FDA has long contended that SPF higher than 50 is “inherently misleading” (Food and Drug Administration, 2007).
Here are some reasons against applying sunscreens with SPF values greater than 50:
Researchers have conducted numerous studies on sunbathers and have observed that high-SPF products spur “profound changes in sun behavior” that may account for the increased melanoma risk found in some studies. The researchers confirmed that European vacationers spent more total time in the sun if they were given an SPF 30 sunscreen instead of an SPF 10 product (Autier et al., 2000). It is assumed the difference would also apply to products with SPF values greater than 50.
Solutions: Sunscreen Should be the Last Resort
You can boost your internal ability to offset UVA and UVB radiation through the consumption of specific nutrients each day. Antioxidants found in colorful fruits and veggies have been shown to have protective effects, but the omnipotent nutrient here is the fat-soluble carotenoid astaxanthin (asta-ZAN-thin), which is what gives krill, salmon, and flamingos their pink color (Ambati, Moi, Ravi & Aswathanarayana, 2014).
Astaxanthin is produced by the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis when its water supply dries up, forcing it to protect itself from ultraviolet radiation. It is this "radiation shield" mechanism that helps explain how astaxanthin can help protect you from similar radiation.
When you consume this pigment, you are essentially creating your own "internal sunscreen." Researchers have confirmed astaxanthin is a potent UVB absorber that helps reduce DNA damage, reduce inflammation, oxidative stress and free radical damage throughout your body.
Each of these health-promoting effects of astaxanthin improves the ability of your skin to handle sun without burning, while giving your body the best advantage to manufacturing vitamin D. However, it is still advised to seek physical protection from the sun, such as hat and long-sleeved clothing, but consuming more astaxanthin will provide a healthier alternative to using synthetic chemicals to filter UV radiation.
Here are some helpful tips to help protect yourself from the sun's harmful UV rays:
When Purchasing Sunscreen
Your safest and best choice for sunscreen protection is zinc oxide. However, avoid nanoparticles, which are common in spray sunscreens, to circumvent potential toxicity. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to find a product without other chemical additives. To help you choose the safest product, EWG performs an annual sunscreen evaluation based on effectiveness and safety.
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