Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Personal Take On Sunscreens

No pun intended, but sunscreens have been a hot topic lately.  Which ones work better?  Are they safe?  Are there any that don’t smell like…well, sunscreen?

Consumer Reports (CR) just came out with their most recent review of sunscreens.  (Note, I am not allowed to post a link to their website, but I found a good article which reviews the list for me here).  I usually use CR as a great resource, but I noticed they only rated 12 different sunscreens.  Popular brand names such as Banana Boat and Aveeno were not even included.  I have to wonder what criteria CR uses when selecting various sunscreens.  Their top rated lotion was the Target Brand, “Up and Up Sport SPF 30”...the brand I personally use.  I can tell you from experience that it’s an effective sunscreen, but despite the “fragrance free” claim, my daughter often states that "daddy smells like sunscreen."  While CR rated the spray, I primarily use the lotion.  I do occasionally use the spray when time is short or kids are squirmy.  (More on spray-versus-lotion later).

One sunscreen they rate poorly is Neutrogena Wet Skin SPF 45+.  I bought a spray can of the Coppertone version of wet skin (note that the sprays run out VERY quickly).  Again, I found this to be an effective sunscreen, but after the initial application, I looked like I was greased down for a body-building competition…something I would NEVER win.  I didn’t just glisten in the sun; I probably raised the UV factor in my general area due to the reflectivity of my skin.  As my wife said, I looked varnished.  I doubt I buy this product again.

I was a little disappointed in Consumer Reports’ small list of sunscreens, but another group recently posted their preferred list.  The Environmental Working Group posted their sunscreen guide, but with a different take.  They were as concerned about toxicity of the chemical contents as they were with effectiveness.   Their list is a LOT longer than 12 products…which leads me to wonder if they truly performed any tests on the effectiveness.  CR used real people, applied sunscreen, exposed the subjects to UVB and then UVA rays, and measured accordingly.  I couldn’t find such details on the EWG website.  (If you find their test methodology, please let me know).

I took a look at my same Target sunscreen on the EWG list.  They rate the UVB protection as “SPF 30” (which leads me to believe they are simply trusting the manufacturer’s SPF label and NOT testing) and the UVA protection as moderate (CR rated it as “Very Good”).  The main flag on the EWG site was that my sunscreen has a high toxicity level (7 out of 10) due to the inclusion of the chemical sunscreens oxybenzone and Vitamin A.

Animal studies have shown that oxybenzone (which is used in 80% of sunscreens) may have some effect on hormones.  Other studies have indicated that the risk of obtaining skin cancer far outweighs the risk of using sunscreens containing oxybenzone.  Vitamin A, or retinol has been shown to cause skin cancer in mice.  Again, there are conflicting studies to mitigate the risk of use.  In short, the jury is still out and the choice is yours.

Many folks stand by using only physical sun blocks such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide.  These minerals provide a physical barrier to block the UV rays while the aforementioned chemical sunscreens absorb the rays.  In the old days, physical sun blocks were associated with the white noses of beach lifeguards.  (Makes you wonder how many lifeguards got skin cancer while having perfectly healthy noses).  Nowadays, these minerals are processed in nanoparticles which leave little or no white film when applied to the skin.  The only problem with nanoparticles is that they are so small, they could absorb into the skin and potentially reach the lungs or blood stream.  There have been no issues found yet with this scenario, but when this very subject was mentioned at an MRF Symposium at the University of North Carolina, the doctor who was speaking said that he personally avoids lotions containing nanoparticles…as do most of his colleagues.

Speaking of small particles, the potential dangers of sunscreen sprays is a growing concern.  As I mentioned before, I occasionally use sprays on both me and my kids.  My kids are older and they hold their breath and close their eyes.  I never spray them (or me) in a closed room…and never near a smooth floor.  (We discovered that spray sunscreen can be VERY slick on a smooth floor!).  We spray either on our back deck or our garage so as not to leave a cloud of spray lingering in the house.  And this is the very concern…whether or not the residual spray is safe.  Probably not.  (The same might be said for spray-on tans as well….a topic for another day).  One “spray” that I use is Banana Boat Body and Scalp pump spray for my, um, more exposed scalp for when I go into the pool and have to remove my hat.  There is no residual spray in the air and it seems to keep my scalp protected.
You may notice that many sunscreens have a Seal of Recommendation by the Skin Cancer Foundation.  It was recently revealed that the SCF does not rate all sunscreens, but only those from companies within their Corporate Council.  They give a little more information here.  In short, there are most likely some pretty valid and reliable sunscreens available that do not have the Seal of Recommendation, so don't judge a product by it's inclusion of the seal.  Another interesting observation is that the specific page about the Seal of Recommendation program is sponsored by Target...the maker of the CR top rated sunscreen.  Hmmm.

So what sunscreen should one use?  My choice (and possibly not yours) is to stick with the basic lotions, but still seek one out that doesn’t have so much of the sunscreen smell.  I will probably still keep a can of the spray stuff handy for quick applications, but I’ll avoid the one brand of “Wet Skin” unless I want to start glistening for a living.  I’ll not use sprays as my primary sunscreen choice.  I plan to avoid the nanoparticles if I can.  The speakers at the MRF symposium seemed less concerned about the chemical sunscreens and far more concerned about the nanoparticles…I think I’ll trust their instinct.

One additional thing I discovered over my recent vacation is that sunscreen, if applied liberally and reapplied every 2 hours, is still not 100% effective.  Despite such application, my forearms are still a half shade darker than my shoulders.  Do not rely on sunscreen as the only weapon against UV rays.  Wearing a hat and shirt and seeking shade are equally if not more important than wearing sunscreen. 

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