Is Sunscreen Dangerous? 4 Sun Protection Do's and Don'ts

A new report says sunscreens are dangerous and ineffective at preventing skin cancer.

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Be afraid, very afraid of that sunscreen you lather on. So suggests a new report from the Environmental Working Group. Most have dangerous chemicals that will accelerate the growth of skin tumors or disrupt the intricate workings of your hormonal systems, the nonprofit group reports. And these "modern-day snake oil" products don't work anyway, the group says, giving people a false sense of security so they stay out in the sun longer and get deadly skin cancer. Scary stuff. But is it true?

The American Academy of Dermatology says no, adding in a statement released yesterday that "scientific evidence supports the beneficial effects of sunscreen" and that sunscreen is "an important tool in the fight against skin cancer." The EWG report, though, does make two legitimate points: First, we shouldn't assume that rubbing on some sunscreen in the morning will protect our bikini-clad bodies at the beach all day. Second, most of us use far too little sunscreen to get significant protection. Here's what Henry W. Lim, chairman of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital, recommends when it comes to using sunscreen.

1. Do trust that sunscreens work. They're not snake oil, says Lim, and are regulated as over-the-counter drugs by the Food and Drug Administration. The current products labeled "broad spectrum," "wide spectrum" or "UVA/UVB protection" do a good job at blocking out UVB rays (the kind that causes sunburns and skin cancers) and a fairly good job at blocking UVA rays (the kind that causes tanning, wrinkles and also contributes to skin cancers). There's some controversy over UVA protection because the FDA hasn't yet issued regulations—expected in October—for how much protection from UVA is needed to allow the use of the wide or broad spectrum label. (Older sunscreen products protected only against UVB.) Products containing titanium dioxide, ecamsule (Mexoryl SX), avobenzone, or zinc oxide generally provide this broader protection.

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2. Do apply a lot, and frequently. While the FDA recommends applying one ounce or a shot-glassful of sunscreen to fully protect your body from head to toe, most of us use just a quarter of that amount and this lowers the sun protection factor by as much as a factor of 10. Studies suggest that a product with an SPF of 30 will give you an SPF of barely 3, says Lim, if you use the amount in a quarter of a shot glass. He's also not a fan of spray-on sunscreens since people tend to apply less or miss spots. "You have to spray a few times over each area." You also need to remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours since sweating, rubbing and swimming can cause sunscreens, even those that are labelled "water resistant," to wear off.

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3. Don't worry so much about the chemicals. The EWG report raised concerns about retinyl palmitate, a vitamin A compound found in about 40 percent of sunscreens. The group says that chemical could accelerate skin damage and increase skin cancer risk when applied to skin that's exposed to sunlight. These claims, says Lim, are based on a study in mice , which are far more susceptible to skin cancer than humans. "It's dangerous to apply a finding in mice to humans, and I've spoken with a number of my colleagues about this and we all agree that it's very premature to even cast doubt about the safety of this chemical." The EWG also flagged products with oxybenzone, which it calls a "hormone-disrupting" compound. This, too, is based on mice data, says Lim; the animals were fed significantly greater amounts of the chemical than what's commonly applied in sunscreen. Other research found no significant changes in blood hormone levels in human volunteers who were told to apply sunscreens containing oxybenzone every day for two weeks. Any hormonal effect, he adds, is probably "very low"; still, if you're concerned about avoiding other hormonal disrupters like bisphenol-A found in hard plastic bottles, you can also avoid this one by checking for oxybenzone on the list of active ingredients.