The title of this post is a bit misleading because in my mind there really is no controversy. Based on the available evidence, sunscreen is not a danger to your health. But we know that not wearing it is!
There has been a great deal of media attention recently following the release of the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) annual sunscreen guide, which called out several brands for “inferior sun protection” or worrisome ingredients. While I believe EWG is trying to work in the public interest, unfortunately the way this information is often reported can be counter-productive to public health when it leads to people exposing themselves to harmful UV rays because they are unnecessarily worried about the sunscreen they’ve been using.
One of EWG’s favorite targets is the chemical oxybenzone, which they claim can be carcinogenic. A study in rats showed possible estrogenic and antiandrogenic effects with exposure to a high dose of oxybenzone. However, it was estimated that it would take 277 years of daily application of sunscreen to reach the same level of exposure in humans. The safety profile of oxybenzone is supported by both the US FDA and Health Canada.
Unfortunately the EWG test methods lack the rigor of peer-reviewed, scientific evaluation. Oxybenzone has been used in the US since the 1970’s with prevalence of exposure estimated to be 96% of the population. And the Canadian Cancer Society has already issued a statement refuting the cancer-causing claim.
EWG also makes the claim that sunscreens labeled with SPF values higher than 50 do not provide additional protection. The fact is that most consumers do not apply sufficient sunscreen, generally applying only 25-50% of the amount used for SPF testing. This results in an effective SPF that is about 33% of the labeled SPF. As such, higher SPFs can help counteract the under application effect.
I wrote this to help address inquiries I get from patients and ensure people are properly protecting themselves from sun damage. I invite you to take a moment to review my Top 10 Sun Protection Tips.