I was intrigued when I saw the flurry on shares of EWG’s newest report on sunscreen
. EWG (Environmental Working Group) is a long time resource of mine. Incidentally, it was sunscreen which lead me to them in the first place. Over a decade ago, when my children were on the summer swim team, we had a friend whose daughter was diagnosed by her pediatrician as exhibiting signs of “precocious puberty”. Precocious Puberty is a condition in which a child’s body begins changing into that of an adult too soon. The young girl was 6 years old, was the height and BMI of an average 6 year old, but was developing breasts and other signs of maturation. The pediatrician told my friend that her daughter would more than likely start menstruation within 18 months. Needless to say my friend was quite freaked out with the possibility and wanted to know what could possibly be causing this early maturation in her daughter. Her pediatrician listed off a few of the suspected offenders- antibiotics in dairy, antibiotics in meat (particularly poultry), and sunscreen. All of these products have shown evidence of being endocrine disruptors, causing hormonal changes in humans. My friend promptly switched to organic milk and meats, but felt her sunscreen was safe because she only used 1 particular brand which was labeled as a baby sunscreen. Her daughter had sensitive skin and it was gentle enough to not cause a reaction, and certainly a product for babies wouldn’t contain endocrine disruptors…or would it?
This is the path which lead me to EWG’s site. Back then it was not as user friendly as it is today. Their database of products was not as extensive, so when we searched the name of her preferred sunscreen it did not come up in the query. She thought it safe and continued to use the product. After several months and no change in her daughter’s progress, I decided to revisit the site and do an ingredient by ingredient search. It didn’t take long. The very first active ingredient, Oxybenzone, came up as an endocrine disruptor. As did the 2nd and 3rd active ingredients too. I didn’t bother to go further, I called my friend and told her to stop using the sunscreen. By the end of summer, her daughter’s “development” had slowed; and after several months it had reversed. By the time she was 7 years old, she no longer had breast buds and the other signs of maturation had disappeared as well.
So to say I was intrigued when I saw the 2016 EWG sunscreen report release, is stating it mildly. I was over-the-top excited to get a confirmation of how much better my sunscreen is now than it was before! Being a little more research savvy I dug deep, it took me 2 days to read the full report.
Here’s my takeaway-
1) My once preferred Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunscreen scored a horrible 10?! Not because of its active ingredients, they were rated as 2s. But a few of the inactive ingredients didn’t score as well. One in particular was rated a 9- Vitamin A.
2) SPF products over 50 do not provide exponentially additional protection.
3) EWG doesn’t rate non-OTC sunscreens. I had never had cause to search a non-OTC product, so it had not occurred to me these products wouldn’t be in their ever-growing database.
The Long and Gist of It
There is a lot of data in the EWG report. While much of it is assessed scientifically, other data (specifically Vitamin A) seems to be a political response. A few years back, the US government released a study on the effects of Retinyl Palmitate on a specific breed of hairless rats. Since the release of that report, EWG has been lobbying the government for further studies; culminating in their public vilifying of all skincare products containing Vitamin A. After several complaints from manufacturers, EWG revised their stance to denounce all Vitamin A products with SPF protection as being bad for consumers.
I agree that further studies are needed, but more directly in controlled groups of humans. You see that although rats are a preferred scientific test subject because they seem to have genetic similarities to humans (and because the general population could give a rat’s ass about the well being of rats), this particular breed of hairless rats are genetically predisposed to skin cancer. In their report, buried several links
and paragraphs away, EWG discloses the studies have used varying strengths and forms of Vitamin A (many of which are not available to the general consumer without prescription), as well as varying intensities of UV lights to produce varying degrees of photosensitivities. Their report also states “The FDA-NTP study found an unanticipated effect: skin damage that might be linked to the solvent diisopropyl adipate. The rates of skin damage in the group treated with cream and diisoprogyl adipate but no retinoids caused FDA to question whether the solvent was also acting as a photocarcinongen and might be responsible for some skin tumors and lesions (FDA 2011) This bears further scrutiny.” So by their own recognition, the studies on Vitamin A as a carcinogen are inconclusive.
In another obscur portion
of the report, they also state “The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety reviewed the hairless mouse study and concluded that the NTP study “may indicate” that the ingredients are photocarcinogenic, but it is difficult to extrapolate this finding to risks of skin cancer for humans due to differences in skin sensitivity between hairless mice and humans (SCCS 2016).” Yet the EWG is now shouting from the rooftops the evils of Vitamin A to entice the consumers to boycott buying these products without substantial scientific cause. I believe it to be in effort to spur the government into doing more tests. Disappointing behavior of my longtime resource – they are misleading consumers in a Chicken Little sort of way.
The next section of the report I tuned into, actually got my goat a little more. SPF above 50
was found to not have any “real” additional benefits. EWG went on to say that the FDA should remove these products from the shelves. It is their contention the American people at large need to be told by the government what to do in their personal lives. The problem with sunscreens in the 50+ SPF category isn’t a negligible UV protection (1% increase up to 100SPF.) The real problem lies with user error. EWG studied reports and found a correlation that “sunscreen users apply far less sunscreen than used in the FDA-mandated SPF tests. When someone applies only 25% of the the expected amount of SPF30, the sunburn protection on the skin is actually only 2.3. When someone applies SPF 100 sparingly, they can wind up with a functional SPF as low as 3.2. In the real world, these products are less effective than t-shirts, which generally have an SPF of 5.” The report goes on to insist manufacturers are to blame for misleading the general public.
I do agree a 1% increase in protection from 51-100%SPF is a bit sketchy, but it is an increase in protection when used as directed. If we were to use the same logic, then why wouldn’t the EWG rally to have all sunscreens removed from the shelves? If SPF 30 when applied incorrectly only provides 2.3 coverage, then that should be considered misleading too and all sunscreens should be removed. See my point here? Consumers need to take responsibility of their actions. If they do not follow the directions on the label, and they stay out in the sun too long, then they should expect the natural consequence. Don’t blame the sunscreen, blame the person’s behavior.
My final takeaway topic is a personal perspective. EWG does not seem to rate non-OTC sunscreens. Granted, there are plenty enough of OTC products to keep their teams busy year in and year out. And since the FDA only loosely regulates these other manufacturers, I can understand why the EWG does not invest their time and monies in rating these products. My best suggestion is if you are concerned about your particular product which isn’t listed, do an ingredient by ingredient search on the EWG database. If that is too time consuming for you, talk to your distributor. Certainly, they should be able to answer your concerns.
Before you go tossing all your skincare products with Vitamin A and SPF protection, consider all the benefits we do know about the effects of Vitamin A on the skin–
- Normalizes blood flow and helps to reduce the symptoms of rosacea
- Increases the rate of wound healing
- Exfoliates- making the skin smooth and even-toned
- Repairs the cellular structure of the skin
- Decreases clustering of melanin granules- so reduces brown spots or pigmentations
- Decreases sebum production and thus treats acne brilliantly
- Improves hydration both in and around the cell by doing all of the above
If you choose to use a skincare product which includes SPF and Vitamin A, be sure to ask if the inactive ingredients neutralize free radicals that could be formed as retinal palmitate breaks down from UV exposure. This additional protection would allow you to reap the benefits of Vitamin A without the possible damage EWG is so concerned about.
Next, if you are using a higher SPF product for specific reasons (sensitive skin, better sports protection, etc) then make sure you are applying it as directed to get the full UV protection. If you don’t need a higher SPF but thought it protected your family for longer hours in the sun, then you may be able to more cost effectively protect your family’s skin by buying 30-50SPF products and use as directed. All references I have read recommend limiting your direct sun exposure and covering the skin with clothing and hats. Skin is difficult to repair once the damage is done, prevention is key.
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*This article is the thoughts, beliefs, and conclussions of the author