Blue Shift: Don’t Let the Internet Scare You About Sunscreen

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Oh, Internet—how you love to scare us so. One day we hear that cell phones will give us cancer (they won’t), the next it’s how eating microwave popcorn might kill us. Right now we’re in the early summer, so cue the reports on how our sunscreen is slowly poisoning us.

Oh! Thanks, Environmental Working Group! Right on schedule. This time the EWG is hitting us in our soft spot by targeting kids’ sunscreens in particular. For this year’s scare, the EWG has named the 13 “worst” sunscreens for kids, declaring that they contain harmful chemicals and superhigh SPF values. To get to the bottom of this, I talked to Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for the EWG and author of the 2016 sunscreen guide, and I looked at the papers the organization cites for the guide.

I’ll get into why some of what the EWG says is misleading, but we’ve done our own investigation into sunscreen, and here is the most important conclusion from our guide: “Everything I read and everyone I talked to said that UV radiation—a known carcinogen—is a far more established threat than anything we are currently putting in sunscreen.”

Please, put sunscreen on your children—they do not need their own special stuff. Sunscreens marketed for kids have the exact same ingredients that adult sunscreens have. Judging from my own kids’ behavior, I would say that labels with cartoon characters on them would go over very well. (If I could find Tigger sunscreen, my son would never want to take it off.)

Although the posts in your Facebook feed may be extreme in proclaiming that we’re dooming our children to the cancer ward, the EWG’s guide and accompanying blog post actually have some good information. Here we’ve identified where the group’s advice is right on, where its suggestions are a little questionable, and what gets lost in translation between scientific information and the EWG’s interpretation.

The good

The EWG advises people to stay away from spray sunscreen, as do we in our sunscreen guide. Specifically, you can inhale it (bad), you still need to rub the substance into your skin, you can have difficulty getting it on evenly, and you can’t really tell how much you’ve put on. That last bit is critical, because probably the most important thing about sunscreen is that you wear a lot of it and that you’re able to see how much you’re putting on. From our guide to sunscreen: “According to all seven dermatologists we interviewed, as well as the many scientific papers and lit reviews we read, if you’re outside, you should be applying a full shot glass’s worth of sunscreen to your near-naked body about once an hour in order to get adequate protection with your sunscreen.”

The EWG also advises people to avoid sunscreen with a really high SPF number, or sun protection factor, as such products could make it seem like you’re more protected than you are. We agree. The relationship between SPF and protection is not linear—SPF 15, for example, filters 93 percent of UVB rays; SPF 30, 97 percent; SPF 50, 98 percent. Nothing will protect you 100 percent from UVB rays, except maybe being in a basement with no windows. And while that can be a perfectly legitimate lifestyle choice, everybody else might want to just use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50.

So the EWG’s guide is accurate and reasonable on the above points. But on others, the organization’s advice starts to go off the rails.

The bad

Two chemicals that the EWG vilifies in this report are oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. To keep things short if you don’t want to read this whole thing: Both oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate are perfectly safe in sunscreens when you use them as the bottle’s label indicates.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty details on what these compounds are, here’s a quick primer on how sunscreens work.

You can find two types of sunscreens: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens, sometimes called “mineral” sunscreens, bounce the sun’s rays away so that they don’t hit your skin, and break down over time after being bombarded with particles of light, aka photons. Chemical sunscreens have active ingredients that go through a chemical reaction when photons hit them, catching and using up the photons’ energy so that it can’t damage your skin. Once the sunscreen has either reflected or captured enough photons to break down, you need to reapply it; that means at least every two hours if not every hour, and after you’ve been in the water.

blue-shift-oxybenzone

Oxybenzone, pictured above, is a compound found in many chemical sunscreens. The EWG doesn’t like oxybenzone for several reasons; it says that the compound penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream, and acts like estrogen in the body. All of that is true.

But the EWG fails to mention that in studies on humans, oxybenzone in sunscreen does go through our skin—and then we flush it out in our pee. And that estrogen effect in the body? That’s in rats’ bodies, when researchers fed them large amounts of the stuff. In humans, you’d have to apply a 4-ounce bottle of sunscreen every week for 70 years to accumulate topical exposure equivalent to what the rats ate (and oxybenzone does not accumulate in our bodies). In two recent reviews (a type of paper in which researchers look at a lot of papers on a topic and sum up what they say), scientists reported no evidence of links between oxybenzone and endocrine disruption in humans.

The EWG also states that oxybenzone is linked to allergies. That is also true. The American Contact Dermatitis Society named benzophenones, a class of compounds that includes oxybenzone, the 2014 allergen of the year. That dubious honor is intended to call attention to allergens that are underrecognized or becoming obsolete, or to promote awareness when the ways people are exposed to them might have changed. Oxybenzone is the most common photoallergen in sunscreen, which means that it needs light to cause an allergic reaction (not a great trait in a sunscreen). It’s also a sensitizer, which means the more you’re exposed to it, the more likely you’ll eventually have a reaction to it. Dr. Erin Warshaw, a dermatologist who specializes in allergies and has written many papers about oxybenzone, told me via email that scientists don’t know how many people are allergic to oxybenzone, but the condition is rare enough that she wouldn’t tell people to avoid the compound. Also, kids aren’t more likely to have an allergic reaction than adults are. But if you are allergy-prone, she said that physical sunscreens are less likely to cause an allergy. (Our pick for the best sunscreen does contain both oxybenzone and avobenzone. We also have a physical sunscreen pick if you want to go that route.)

Retinyl palmitate, the EWG’s other chemical bad guy, is sometimes called Vitamin A, although it’s really an analogue of the vitamin. The EWG claims: “On sun-exposed skin, retinyl palmitate may speed development of skin tumors and lesions, according to government studies.” The organization is referring to this report (PDF) by the US National Toxicology Program; the scientists found that hairless mice got more skin tumors from UV light when they smeared the mice in creams containing retinyl palmitate.

blue-shift-retinyl

The EWG states in this post (not in its guide to sunscreens) that “[s]unscreen scientists and trade groups” dispute such claims. But here’s the bigger picture. The European Union has a Science Committee on Consumer Safety study (pages 56–57 of this PDF) on retinyl palmitate in cosmetics that highlights several issues with the NTP’s study. Here are a few:

  • Hairless mice are prone to UV-induced skin cancer and are not a good model for human skin, since they’re both nocturnal and usually covered in fur.
  • The mice placed in UV light and covered in cream with no retinyl palmitate developed more tumors than the mice that received only the light treatment in the NTP study.
  • In the end, the mice exposed to retinyl palmitate got more tumors only from the lower UV dose. At the higher dose, there was no difference between retinyl palmitate and the control cream.

The EU report points out that a new study of retinyl palmitate is under way at the US National Center for Toxicological Research, presumably because of the criticisms outlined above. In addition, a Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel suggested that the NTP paper had “limited use,” which is a nice-scientist way of saying that it was not a good study. When I asked the EWG’s Sonya Lunder if she thought the NTP report was worth citing, even though it had all these issues, she said, “Absolutely, in my opinion, yes.”

The ugly

The problem with a lot of what the EWG says is the lack of context that would tell you how likely you are to be harmed by such compounds. The EWG often reports the hazard of a compound but not the risk. For another example, I discuss the difference here, using sharks. To sum up, a shark is a hazard, and the risk is how close you are to the shark. With sunscreens, the EWG is saying the equivalent of “sharks are dangerous” but not telling you how close they are, or how many there are, or if you’re even in shark-infested waters.

The thing is, the EWG knows the difference. Way down at the bottom of the site is a disclaimer: “The ratings reflect potential health hazards but do not account for the level of exposure or individual susceptibility, factors which determine actual health risks, if any.” When I asked Lunder about risk, she said, “I think risk is clearly the question on everyone’s mind, but it’s incredibly challenging to really tally it up.” She also noted that “we live in a world of trying to gauge risk, but we don’t always have complete and perfect information to do that. And in the meantime, we’ll point out hazard concerns about common ingredients in sunscreen and let people figure out exactly what strategies they’re going to use to protect themselves from the sun.”

So the EWG will tell you which compounds have any chance at all of harming you, but leave it to you to figure out what those chances are. My interview with the EWG ran out of time, and I was told to email any follow-up questions. I asked Lunder if the EWG agrees with the idea in toxicology that the dose makes the poison, and whether the EWG advises people to avoid a compound such as ibuprofen, since it can be harmful in large doses. She did not respond to either question.

The essence of Lunder’s argument was that the EWG reports avoidable risks. It’s possible to buy products without potential hazards, she said, so why not just use those? And I guess I can see that. Sort of. But my point is, doing so would mean you’re going out of your way to avoid something that’s really, really, really unlikely to hurt you in the first place. Parents have so many things to worry about for real these days, so pointing out things that have a very small potential to harm kids just seems … cruel. This type of thinking buries us in unnecessary anxiety and fear.

What’s particularly unfortunate is that a lot of media outlets uncritically repeat what the EWG says (wth, Time?). Many publications skip the nuance and context that such reports sorely need. And let’s not even go into how much this stuff shows up on Facebook feeds and Pinterest pages. But it is heartening to see that more and more people are questioning alarmist claims, including one fed-up mom who essentially gives them the middle finger.

Please slather your children in “toxic death cream,” aka sunscreen, but also cover them with rash guards, hats, umbrellas, awnings, your love, and your ability to question dubious health claims. Hopefully they will grow up healthy, strong, and unlikely to be scared by misleading science on the Internet.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that NO-AD sunscreen did not contain oxybenzone. One of NO-AD’s active ingredients is oxybenzone.

When a source of light moves toward you, its waves are compressed and pushed to a higher energy. We can’t always see this blue shift, but it’s there.

In the space of Internet science, there’s a lot of bad information floating around. In this biweekly column, Leigh Krietsch Boerner, chemistry PhD and science editor of The Sweethome, will tell you what you need to know on the science of home products, and what’s all around you.

(Top photo by Jesse Dittmar, with illustration by Elizabeth Brown.)

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