In 1944 the first widely available sunscreen was put on the market. Called Red Vet Pet, for red veterinary petrolatum, it was a gross, sticky petroleum distillate goop with limited effectiveness. Fast forward to 2010 and we are faced with more than 500 choices for sunscreen–but the surprising truth is this: beyond the knowledge that sunscreens prevent sunburns, little else is known about the safety and efficacy of sunscreen lotions and sprays.
Research from the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) fourth annual Sunscreen Guide unearthed many disturbing facts that might tempt you to abandon sunscreen altogether–although despite the unknowns about their efficacy, it is still recommended to use sunscreens, just not as your first line of defense–EWG recommends shade, protective clothing and avoiding the noontime sun.
As for sunscreens now available on the market, EWG researchers recommend only 39 of 500 beach and sport sunscreens. The reason? A surge in exaggerated SPF claims above 50 and new disclosures about potentially hazardous ingredients, in particular recently developed government data linking the common sunscreen ingredient vitamin A to accelerated development of skin tumors and lesions.
Here are some of the more surprising facts about sunscreen, adapted from the EWG report:
1. No proof that sunscreen prevents skin cancer.
The FDA’s 2007 draft sunscreen safety regulations say: “FDA is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) agrees. IARC recommends clothing, hats and shade as primary barriers to UV radiation and writes that “sunscreens should not be the first choice for skin cancer prevention and should not be used as the sole agent for protection against the sun.
2. There’s some evidence that sunscreens might increase the risk of the deadliest form of skin cancer for some people.
Some researchers have detected an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users. Scientists speculate that sunscreen users stay out in the sun longer and absorb more radiation overall, or that free radicals released as sunscreen chemicals break down in sunlight may play a role. One other hunch: Inferior sunscreens with poor UVA protection that have dominated the market for 30 years may have led to this surprising outcome. All major public health agencies still advise using sunscreens, but they also stress the importance of shade, clothing and timing.