It's something we should all do before heading out into the sun - slather sunscreen on to protect ourselves from the sun’s harmful rays. But, did you know that the product we pick might not really work? Or worse yet, some of the ingredients can be bad for our bodies and our planet!
The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit public health and environmental research and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, studied nearly a thousand brand named sunscreens in 2009. Three out of five did not adequately protect our skin from the sun or they were made with chemicals that could be harmful to people. Remember, those same harmful chemicals build up in our environment - whether it washes off in the ocean or goes down our shower drain and into the water supply!
One common and controversial sunscreen ingredient is oxybenzone. Its primary function is to absorb ultraviolet light but research shows it can also be absorbed through the skin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study in 2008 showing that 97 percent of Americans they tested were contaminated with oxybenzone.
Oxybenzone is currently allowed in sunscreens but recent research is revealing that it is linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage that can lead to skin cancer.
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Another study by the CDC also revealed that oxybenzone is linked to low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers were exposed during pregnancy.
In the environment, researchers believe oxybenzone may be contributing to the feminizing of certain species of male fish in our oceans, rivers and lakes.
So why is oxybenzone still considered ‘safe’ for use in sunscreens?
Unfortunately, the Federal Drug and Food Administration (FDA), which regulates sunscreen safety, has not updated mandatory sunscreen standards in over 30 years! Current FDA oversight of sunscreens is largely confined to ensuring that sunscreens prevent sunburn and that the manufacturers labeling claims can be supported. This means that the FDA is only regulating the sun protection factor from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays that cause sunburns, and not ultraviolet A (UVA) rays that can cause melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. The regulations do nothing to address health concerns centered on oxybenzone.
What should you do?
The best advice is to look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that offers protection from both UVB and UVA rays but does not contain oxybenzone. This will give you the most protection from the sun’s harmful rays without polluting your body or the environment. Sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium oxide are recommended by the Environmental Working Group. You can find a list of brand name products that meet their recommendations online at http://www.ewg.org/whichsunscreensarebest/2009report