Home / News / News Features / EarthTalk



Jul. 16, 2008
Google plus Linkedin Pinterest

Dear EarthTalk: Are sunscreens safe? Which ones do you recommend for protecting my skin from the sun without causing other health issues? —Bettina E.

EarthTalk: Getting a little sunshine is important for helping our bodies generate Vitamin D, an important supplement for strong bones, and for regulating our levels of serotonin and tryptamine, neurotransmitters that keep our moods and sleep/wake cycles in order.

Like anything, though, too much sun can cause health issues, from sunburns to skin cancer. For those of us who spend more time in the sun than doctors recommend—they say to stay indoors between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on sunny days to be safe—sunscreens can be lifesavers.

Getting too much sun is bad because of ultraviolet radiation, 90% of which comes in the form of Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays that are not absorbed by the ozone layer and penetrate deep into our skin. Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays make up the rest. These rays are partially absorbed by the ozone layer (which makes preserving the ozone layer crucial for our health), and because they don’t penetrate our skin as deeply, can cause those lobster-red sunburns. Both types of UV rays are thought to cause skin cancer.

Yet while most sunscreens block out at least some UVB radiation, many don’t screen UVA rays at all, making their use risky. According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), by far most of the commercially available sunscreens do not provide adequate protection against the sun’s harmful UV radiation and may also contain chemicals with questionable safety records.

In all, 84% of the 785 sunscreens EWG tested did not pass health and environmental muster. Many contained potentially harmful chemicals like benzophenone, homosalate and octyl methoxycin namate (also called octinoxate), which are known to mimic naturally occurring bodily hormones and can thus throw the body’s systems out of whack. Some also contained padimate-0 and parsol 1789 (also known as avobenzone), which are suspected of causing DNA damage when exposed to sunlight. Furthermore, EWG found that more than half the sunscreens on the market make questionable product claims about longevity, water resistance and UV protection.

As a result, EWG has called on the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to establish standards for labeling so that consumers have a better idea of what they may be buying. In the meantime, consumers looking to find out how their preferred brand stacks up can check out EWG’s online Skin Deep database, which compares thousands of health and beauty products against environmental and human health standards.

The good news is that many companies are now introducing safer sunscreens crafted from plant- and mineral-based ingredients and without chemical additives.

Some of the best, according to Skin Deep, are Avalon Baby’s Sunscreen SPF 18, Badger’s SPF 30 Sunscreen, Burt’s Bees’ Chemical-Free Sunscreen SPF 15 and California Baby’s SPF 30. Natural foods markets stock many of these, or they can be found online at Web sites like Sun Protection Center and Drugstore.com.

Contacts: Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org); Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com); Sun Protection Center (www.spfstore.com); Drugstore.com (www.drugstore.com).

Got an environmental question? Send it to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


Would white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan pose the same threat they do now if a mainstream Republican were president instead of Donald Trump?

Getting poll results. Please wait...