About a year ago, I stumbled across a blog post titled Why It's Harder Than Ever To Find Safe, Natural Sunscreens. This post was a mother's lament about the decision of several leading natural personal care companies including Dr. Hauschka and Weleda, to opt out of the sun care product market altogether.
Apparently the European Union's new, stricter regulations around UV protection in sun care products would have forced them to re-formulate their products using synthetic sunscreen filters. These companies, like mine, are committed to making safe, healthy, non-toxic, plant-based products so they are just saying 'No Thanks' to government regulations based on fear-mongering, inconclusive studies, and incomplete science.
But this woman's blog post revealed the true bind conscientious consumers are in. On the one hand you want to make choices that protect you and your loved ones from danger and harm, on the other hand your choices are limited by government regulations that are often strongly influenced, if not dictated, by large corporate interests, short-sightedness, complicity from the medical (and in this case, dermatology) community, or a simple lack of funds for more meaningful research and testing.
Whereas it was once believed that UVB rays (the ones that cause sunburn) were directly linked to skin cancer, it is now believed that UVA rays are the real cause of both skin cancer and pre-mature aging of the skin. So UVA filtration (or protection) is the latest driving factor behind global sunscreen product development. Unfortunately, at the moment there are only a few chemical sunscreens that can protect you from UVA, and as it turns out, here in the U.S. we have even fewer options than in Europe or Japan, due to the FDA's continuing failure to finalize its official position on this sensitive but critical matter.
It also turns out that some of the FDA-approved sunscreen chemicals can lead to other cancers because of the free radicals they generate when they absorb and react with the very rays they are designed to protect you from! Free radicals are unstable molecules that cause cellular damage by stealing electrons from healthy cells --a process called oxidation. The DNA mutations caused by this damage are usually a pre-requisite for the rapid development of any type of cancer.
According to The Chemical Sunscreen Health Disaster web site, sunscreens made from chemicals are potentially harmful to humans in one of two ways:
1) Their chemical action leads to the proliferation of cancer-causing free radicals and/or
2) Their estrogenic effects make them endocrine disruptors which can cause serious problems in sexual development and adult sexual function, and can further increase risks for certain types of cancer other than melanoma.
This is a list of FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients as of August 2010:
Avobenzone (also known as Parsol 1789)
Octinoxate (formerly Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid
Of this list, only two ingredients --Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide-- are naturally occurring ingredients. Both are very effective physical UVA and UVB sun blocks because they deflect UV rays away from the skin. All the other ingredients are chemical sunscreens that work by absorbing UVB radiation (the so-called "burning rays") and then dispersing the energy through chemical reactions --some of which can generate those dreaded "free radicals" that often lead to cancer.
The most commonly used of these ingredients are Avobenzone, Octinoxate (formerly Octyl Methoxycinnamate), Octocrylene, Oxybenzone, and Padimate O.
Avobenzone is an oil soluble chemical agent capable of absorbing light throughout the entire UVA spectrum. It is one of the very few comprehensive chemical UVA sunscreens available on the market right now. Its role in protecting skin from the potentially carcinogenic effects of UVA radiation, are what make it the most widely used chemical sunscreen ingredient.
Unfortunately, Avobenzone is known in the scientific community as a strong free radical generator that degrades fairly quickly in actual sunlight, rapidly reducing its effectiveness as a sunscreen. Which has to make you wonder ... can using this type of sunscreen actually cause more harm than good?
The results of one study done at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, showed that many widely used sunscreen chemicals, including benzophenone-3, octyl methoxycinnamate, and octyl-dimethyl-PABA, mimic the effects of the female hormone estrogen and trigger developmental abnormalities in rats.
And as far back as 1998, Dr. John Knowland at the University of Oxford, reported studies showing that certain sunscreens containing PABA and its derivatives can damage DNA, at least in the test tube experiments. When a chemical sunscreen, Padimate-O, was added to DNA and the mixture exposed to the ultraviolet rays of sunlight, it was found that the sunscreen broke down in sunlight, releasing highly active agents that could damage DNA.
Research by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) of over 1,500 sunscreens and other sun-blocking products currently on the market found that 3 of 5 sunscreens either don't protect skin from sun damage or contain hazardous chemicals --or both. In their 2009 Sunscreen Report they reported a 70% increase over 2008 in the number of products containing one ore more of the 4 strong UVA filters FDA has approved for use in sunscreens (Avobenzone, Mexoryl, Titanium Dioxide, and Zinc). Their research showed that despite the increased use of UVA filters, 1-in-9 products offer dangerously low levels of UVA protection.
In August 2007, the FDA proposed a 4-star rating system for UVA protection and a requirement that the rating appear on sunscreen labels. The FDA has not yet finalized this proposal though there has been talk that the new rules will finally be released in the fall of 2010. As a result of this delay, no brands are currently posting the new UVA rating voluntarily. With no mandatory, comprehensive sunscreen standards in place, products vary widely in safety and effectiveness, natural product manufacturers aren't able to offer safer products, mothers fret, and the public continues to lose out.
Copyright 2010 Dropwise Essentials
Donya Fahmy, is a green business owner and the creator of Dropwise Essentials' spa-quality aromatherapy body products that help you safely relieve stress, increase vitality, improve confidence, or simply manage your emotional state any time or place without popping a pill. For more free tips and valuable information visit www.dropwise.com and subscribe to the Dropwise Health & Beauty News Ezine or blog feed.