THE DETAILS: The ingredient at issue is retinyl palmitate, a derivative of vitamin A added to a wide variety of sunscreens and other personal-care products to enhance your skin's appearance. But its use in sunscreens concerns Schumer and other public health advocates, who cite numerous studies finding that it breaks down in the presence of UV rays to form DNA-damaging free radicals, which can promote the development of certain types of cancer. The government took notice of this research, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and FDA National Center for Toxicological Research decided to conduct studies of their own to see how reactive the chemical is and whether it should be removed from sunscreens. The agencies finished their study last July and have posted results online, but they have yet to publicize any final assessments or recommendations based on their findings. In the statement made last Friday, Schumer said that "with the recent reports suggesting a possible link between skin cancer and a common chemical found in sunscreens, the FDA must act now to protect consumers in New York and across the nation. Summer is here, people are soaking up the sun, and the FDA needs to immediately provide guidance and reassurance to consumers."
Olga Naidenko, PhD, senior scientist at the advocacy-oriented Environmental Working Group (EWG) and a lead researcher of the group's annual report on sunscreen safety, has reviewed the FDA's data and says what she found was concerning. "The government data is available on a website, and it shows that the animals that got vitamin A treatments did in fact develop tumors earlier than animals that received sunscreens without it, a sign that this compound may pose a risk," she says. "This is a very cautious interpretation of their results, but on the basis of what we saw, it raised a concern for us as to its use in sunscreens."
WHAT IT MEANS: One reason the FDA may be dragging its feet is a typical Washington problem—industry influence. In addition to deciding whether retinyl palmitate should be removed from products, the agency has been considering for years whether to impose stricter limits on how high an SPF rating can go, and whether to create a new rating system for UVA rays (the rays responsible for skin cancer but not included in SPF ratings). "The industry influence has been significant as to why the FDA has not finalized its sunscreen regulations," Naidenko says. "Part of the problem is that, in the absence of regulation, this has been a wild marketing field with all kinds of really overblown claims."
Those high SPF numbers are among the most blatant, she adds. The FDA technically prohibits sunscreen manufacturers from labeling any product as having an SPF higher than 50, but they've never had the power to enforce that requirement. And you may have noticed, this summer there are more and more products labeled as having an SPF of 75 or even 100, which Naidenko says is misleading and lulls people into a false sense of security. "People assume they can spend a full day in the sun with only one application of an SPF 75 product," she says. "But in reality, they should have been reapplying that SPF 75 at same rate as an SPF 35," which is every two hours. Furthermore, the American Academy of Dermatology says that an SPF 15 product blocks 93 percent of UV rays, while an SPF 30 blocks 97 percent. No product will block 100 percent, the organization notes, so the amount of added protection you get from an SPF 75 or 100 product is minimal.
Now that summer is fully upon us, there is a way to buy safe sunscreens that won't promote skin cancer or cause you to burn unexpectedly. But you just have to be a good label reader:
Buy broad-spectrum sunscreens. First off, understand that SPF is only a measure of sunburn-producing UVB rays, not skin-cancer-promoting UVA rays. So look for the words "broad-spectrum" on any sunscreen you buy. Unfortunately, of the 16 active ingredients permitted for use in sunscreens, just five block both UVA and UVB rays. Since some of these ingredients have been linked to hormone disruption, stick with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Both are broad-spectrum protectants that sit on top of your skin and deflect heat, rather than chemicals that absorb UV rays and convert them to heat.
• Know what SPF means for you. SPF can be confusing, and it actually has to more to do with time spent in the sun than the amount of UV rays that get blocked. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the SPF measures how much time you personally can spend in the sun without getting burned. If you can spend 10 minutes in the sun, unprotected, without burning, an SPF 15 product will increase that amount 15 times, to 150 minutes, and an SPF 30 will increase that 30 times, to 300 minutes. Even so, sunscreen can rub, wash, or sweat off your skin, so you should still reapply it every two hours (120 minutes)—even if it's labeled "waterproof," "sweatproof," or something similar. And never apply an SPF 100 product and expect to stay sunburn free for a full 16 hours.
• Avoid retinyl palmitate—and other shady sunscreen ingredients. As mentioned, EWG and Naidenko published a report earlier this year ranking sunscreens based on the safety of their ingredients as well as their effectiveness at blocking both UVA and UVB rays. All their recommended products are free of vitamin A derivatives, and you can find out who the winners (and losers) were, so you can buy the safest products, on their website, www.ewg.org/2010sunscreen.
• Make sunscreen just one part of your protection plan. Both EWG, the American Academy of Dermatology, and other skin cancer advocacy groups say that sunscreen should be just one part of a skin cancer–protection plan that includes staying inside or in the shade during peak sun hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and wearing protective clothing, like long sleeves and sunglasses, in addition to your sunscreen.