Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Controversy Surrounding Sunscreen. Does Sunscreen Cause Cancer?



You can’t tell from the day-glo bottles, but there’s controversy brewing in the sunscreen aisle. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just delayed (again) new rules about sunscreen labels beyond this summer. Now, you won’t see the changes—which include the removal of potentially misleading words “waterproof,” “sweatproof” and “sunblock”—until December at the earliest.
Even when enacted, these updates won’t address many questions about sunscreen, says Sonya Lunder, M.P.H., a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—including whether some of its ingredients can actually cause skin cancer. (Did you know that 1 in 5 Americans will have skin cancer during his or her lifetime? Visit the Men’s Health Cancer Guide to learn how to protect, detect, and treat this common killer.)

Here are the answers you need before you slather on the stuff this summer.
Q: Are the chemicals in sunscreen toxic?
Sunscreens shield your skin one of two ways: either using minerals or man-made compounds. Research suggests retinyl palmitate—a form of vitamin A that fights skin aging—interacts with UVA rays to induce skin cancer in mice. Another concern is sun-blocking oxybenzone. In animal studies, it disrupts hormone balances, leading to weight gain and reproductive health problems. Oxybenzone can leach through your skin—in fact, it’s in the bloodstreams of 97 percent of Americans.
However, no human research supports these harmful health effects, says Steven Wang, M.D., a dermatologist and researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Last year, he published a review paper delving into the evidence, and the investigation convinced him these compounds are safe.
Still, they aren’t essential, and you can avoid them with a little effort, says Lunder. Try formulas made with the chemicals avobenzone or Mexoryl SX or the minerals zinc or titanium. Our picks: Thinksport Livestrong Sunscreen (SPF 50+) or BurnOut Ocean Tested Physical Sunscreen (SPF 30+). (Find more great skin-savers in our roundup of the Best Inexpensive Grooming Products for Men.)
Q: Are the tiny particles in mineral sunscreens hazardous?
There’s cause for concern about the microscopic zinc and titanium in mineral sunscreens: University of Utah researchers found zinc nanoparticles could kill colon cells when ingested, and in a 2009 paper, tiny titanium caused genetic damage in mice.
But there’s no evidence nanominerals penetrate healthy skin, says Philip Moos, Ph.D., author of the zinc paper. And the dose required for these harms is high—far more than you’d get from smooching your girlfriend’s sunscreen-coated shoulder.
For now, Lunder says, mineral formulas are still your best bet. Play it extra-safe by skipping sprays; inhaling nanoparticles gives them a direct path into your body. They’re harder to apply evenly anyway, Moos says.
Q: Does sunscreen protect you from skin cancer?
Shockingly, until recently, evidence that sunscreen prevented the deadly skin cancer melanoma was almost as thin as Gisele Budchen. (Click here to find out where the bikini model landed on our list of the Hottest Women of All Time.)
That changed last year with the publication of a randomized controlled trial from Australia, in which study participants assigned to slap on sunscreen had less melanoma over 10 years. “Now, the evidence is there, and it’s very strong,” Dr. Wang says.
Still, it’s unclear what’s actually happening on the beach. In a study published last year in Cancer Causes & Control, people who said they used sunscreen actually reported more sunburns—bright-red risk factors for cancer. “Often people wearing sunscreen end up spending longer in the sun. If they don’t apply often enough, thickly enough, and to all of the exposed areas, they don’t get the protection they think they’re getting,” says study author Eleni Linos, M.D., a dermatologist at the University of California-San Francisco.
For all the uproar, dermatologists and public health advocates agree sunscreen is an important weapon in your cancer-prevention arsenal. Just don’t assume it’s the best or only one. “Think about it in a different order,” Lunder says: First, stay in the shade and wear a hat and clothing, preferably with UV protection like these Best Picks for Outdoor UV-Protective Gear. Then, apply sunscreen—early, generously, and often (every 40 to 80 minutes)—to any uncovered area.


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