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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Keeping Away the Rays

Air Date: Week of

Host Bruce Gellerman turns to Jane Houlihan, Vice President of Research for the Environmental Working group to get the inside scoop on what’s inside sunscreen.


GELLERMAN: Tis the season to slather on the sunscreen. And while we’ve all been warned about the dangers of the sun’s rays, now comes a warning about the products that are supposed to protect us. Jane Houlihan is vice president of research with the Environmental Working Group. The organization is coming out with a new report evaluating the effectiveness and safety of the ingredients in sunscreens. Ms. Houlihan, thanks for joining me.

HOULIHAN: You’re welcome, I’m happy to be here.

GELLERMAN: Now, the organization which you are vice president of, the Environmental Working Group, recently did some research investigating the ingredients that go into sunscreens. What did you find?

HOULIHAN: In the US we have 17 active sunscreens that are approved for use in sunscreen, and they vary a lot across the board in terms of how much protection they provide from radiation and in terms of how safe they are to put on the skin. So we looked at – are these ingredients themselves presenting some toxicity? And we found that ranges pretty widely. For instance some of the ingredients in sunscreens produce free radicals. And those can damage DNA or cells and present cancer risks.

GELLERMAN: In preparing for this interview I looked up some of those ingredients and there are some suspicions that some are neurodisruptors, some act as estrogens. Is that true?

HOULIHAN: Yes, for instance some ingredients act like estrogens in the body like octylmethoxycinnamate. That’s in almost 300 sunscreens that we looked at, almost half of the sunscreens we’ve investigated. That’s a concern because estrogen is linked to increased risk for breast cancer. And also there are concerns about what happens to those chemicals when they are washed off our bodies in the shower and they get into wastewater treatment plants and into streams and rivers.

GELLERMAN: Is there any evidence to suggest that once these ingredients wash off and are in the water that they effect the wildlife, the fish, the plant life?

HOULIHAN: Yes. Some of the early concerns about the toxicity, the dangers of sunscreens came from studies of wildlife. And what’s been found is that these chemicals may be feminizing fish. So it’s a big concern for wildlife. And of course those studies raise questions about what these chemicals are doing when we put them on our bodies. And so when your combining, you know, six products a day on average for men, twelve a day on average for women, that includes sunscreen too, you know, we’re each applying 100 almost 200 unique ingredients to our skin every day and those exposures can add up.

GELLERMAN: Some of these chemicals on the backs of these products are unpronounceable. And for the average consumer how are they supposed to know which are safe or not safe?

HOULIHAN: It is really hard for consumers to navigate the safety of personal care products including sunscreens. And it’s one reason that my group has worked for three years to give people a resource which helps guide them. And one thing we have done is compile ingredient and product safety information for about 14,000 products on the market and we’ve put it in a big searchable online data base called Skin Deep.

Cosmetics, personal care products – there is no requirement for pre-market safety testing and what that means is that the whole system operates on, you know, the honor system. The manufacturers are operating on an honor system and so the claims on sunscreens sometimes just flat out aren’t substantiated. Some companies use ingredients that are safe to eat and other companies use human carcinogens in their products. It’s a huge variation and one thing you can look for in products when you’re buying them are antioxidants, because those will help quench free radicals. It’s the reason manufacturers are adding them. So if you look for things like vitamin E, vitamin C, even green tea. Those kinds of ingredients can help.

GELLERMAN: Now Ms. Houlihan, what does SPF actually mean?

HOULIHAN: That sun protection factor tells you how well that product protects you from sunburn. And it’s actually a number that’s set based on people who volunteer to be sunburned in a laboratory. That SPF protection factor though, only covers what’s called UVB radiation and it doesn’t cover UVA radiation – the other dangerous side of how we’re exposed to radiation from the sun. And that kind of radiation actually penetrates deeper into the skin. And the FDA is way behind the curve. They haven’t set standards yet for UVA protection. Most other countries have standards. So, when you’re buying a sunscreen you have to do your homework. You have to first of all look for products that are claiming broad spectrum protection, because that’s at least a start. And then look on the back of the label for ingredients like zinc oxide or avobenzone that are actual UVA protectors.

GELLERMAN: Zinc oxide is the stuff that I used to watch lifeguards put on their nose.

HOULIHAN: Right. So it used to be white and really noticeable on the skin. And formulations over the last few years have been made that use smaller particles of zinc oxide that are transparent. So you don’t have that problem of looking white all over when you use the product.

GELLERMAN: Now vitamin D has been called the sunshine vitamin and if I screen out the sun am I kind of diminishing my ability to get vitamin D?

HOULIHAN: One thing we know is that it doesn’t take much sun to give us enough vitamin D. So if you’re even out in the sun for say 15 minutes you’re getting enough of a dose of sunshine to get your vitamin D.

GELLERMAN: Ms. Houlihan, thank you very much.

HOULIHAN: You’re welcome.

GELLERMAN: Jane Houlihan is vice president for research for the Environmental Working Group. To find out which products might be safer for you, check out our website: loe.org.



Environmental Working Group report: Skin Deep


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