Sunscreen, our health and the environment

First published July 2007, updated June 2011

The regular use of sunscreen lotion might provide some protection from sunburn, but it may also have quite serious health risks – for ourselves and the wider environment.

The sunscreen industry is huge – worth billions of dollars annually. It rose to mega-profitability when a link was made between skin cancer and over-exposure to the sun in the late 60’s/early 1970’s. Yet the incidence of skin cancer continues to rise even though these products are widely used.

The latest investigation by the Environmental Working Group of over 1,700 sunscreens and other sun-blocking products currently on the market found only one in five sunscreens earned high marks for safety and efficacy. Leading brands were again this year among the worst offenders. 

It’s quite disturbing what’s in some sunscreen preparations. Here’s a partial list:

Aminobenzoic acid – possible carcinogen may be implicated in cardiovascular disease.

Avobenzone – possible carcinogen

Cinoxate – some evidence of skin toxicity

Dioxybenzone – strong evidence of skin toxicity and possible carcinogen; hormone disruptor and has been found in waterways, soil and air. Has been shown to have a “gender bender” effect in animals

Diazolidinyl urea – possible carcinogen, endocrine, central nervous system and brain effects, skin toxicity an compromises the immune system

Ecamsule – may be carcinogenic

Homosalate – endocrine disruption

Methylparaben – interferes with genes

Octocrylene – found to be persistent and bioaccumulative in wildlife, liver issues and possible carcinogen

Octyl methoxycinnamate – accumulates in the body, may disrupt liver and is a possible carcinogen

Octyl salicylate – broad systemic effects in animals at moderate doses

Oxybenzone – possible carcinogen and contributor to vascular disease, may affect the brain and nervous system in animals

Padimate O – suspected carcinogen

Phenylbenzimidazole – possible carcinogen

Phenoxyethanol – irritant, possible carcinogen, endocrine disruption

Sulisobenzone – strong evidence of skin toxicity, affects sense organs in animals

Titanium dioxide – suspected carcinogen when in nanomaterial form

Zinc Oxide – bioaccumulative in wildlife, evidence of reproductive toxicity

Fragrances, colors and preservatives – I hate to think

To prevent skin cancer, we need to slap on potentially carcinogenic compounds and chemicals that interfere with our immune and reproductive systems and that also pose a risk to the wider environment?

Millions of gallons of sunscreen is consumed each year. After application, it doesn’t mysteriously vanish – it winds up either soaking into our bodies and accumulating there or is excreted (into the environment) or washed off; again – into the environment.

I’m now a little cynical about the claimed benefits of sunscreen. Sure, it may stop us from burning; but isn’t that nature’s way of telling us “get the heck out of the sun and don’t stay out here this long again”? And aside from all the chemicals, does it actually stop melanomas, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, from forming?

Nobody has proven that sunscreen helps protect against melanomas as far as I know. In fact, some of the advice from researchers I’ve read basically states; “we don’t know, but you should keep using sunscreen – just to be safe”. How safe are we in applying these chemical cocktails?

One of the other problems with sunscreen is in order to be effective against less serious forms of skin cancer, you need to use a lot of it, and far more often than what the manufacturers recommend and regardless of what the SPF rating is.

If you’re in shorts and a t-shirt and working up a bit of a sweat, the amount you’d need to use over an 8 hour period is the equivalent to a 100 ml or 3.5 ounce tube. Imagine if you worked outside each day and followed “best practice” sunscreen application – it would cost you a fortune, not to mention having applied many pounds of toxic chemicals to your body every year. Let’s not forget about all that packaging too – mainly plastic tubes and pump packs that wind up in landfill – millions of them every single year.

By using sunscreen, are we swapping the risk of one type of cancer for more serious kinds, plus other health and environmental problems?

After many hours of reading on the subject; the cheapest, most earth friendly and proven sunscreen solutions I could find are:

– stay out of the sun
– stay out of the sun especially between 10 and 3pm
– if you have to spend time in the sun, cover up, wear a wide brimmed hat and uv sunglasses.

It’s basically all just common sense.

I did come across earth friendly products that contained herbs and oils to replace some of the chemicals listed above, but I’m really not confident after the studies I’ve read as to how effective these might be in terms of preventing melanoma or other forms of skin cancer. There’s also the issue of micronized and nanoparticle ingredients which are still often found in otherwise greener products. The Environmental Working Group has listed what it believes to be “good” sunscreens here; but even they say “the best sunscreen is a hat and a shirt”.

Some people just aren’t meant to spend lengthy periods in the sun – and light skinned Caucasians are a group most at risk. People with lighter features are 20 times more likely to develop melanoma than African Americans.

Perhaps it’s just another case of us needing to work with the environment instead of trying to beat it all the time.