There has been a bit of fuss lately about people getting seriously burnt even though they used sunscreen. For a while now, I’ve been a little concerned about the long list of unpronounceable names on the back of our ever-present library of sunscreens. Prompted by the latest bout of bad news, I decided to finally do the research I’d been putting off. So far, the results are both infuriating and worrying.
I was a kid during the slip, slop, slap era. We were told (by a seagull with a lisp) to thlip on a shirt, thlop on sunscreen and thlap on a hat. There is absolutely no doubt that overexposure to the UV radiation in sunlight is likely a cause of skin cancer (although probably not melanoma). And so advice aimed at ensuring we minimize that risk is smart. This is particularly true in a country where most of us have a complexion more suited to Norway than the equator.
Staying out of the sun and wearing a hat and long sleeved shirt are all very effective ways of keeping our sun exposure at safe levels. The trouble is doing that is often incompatible with our favourite activities. Young netballers want to look like the Diamonds (who play indoors at night) so wear short dresses with cutout shoulders. We want to spend all day at the beach, not five minutes, and while we’re there we don’t want to be rugged up like we’re on a polar mission.
This has meant that increasingly, sunscreen has become the all-purpose panacea. The Thlip, Tholp, Thlap messaging hasn’t changed but we have decided we can do what we like and dress how we like, whenever we like, as long as we load up on the sunscreen first. Sunscreen has changed from our last line of defence to the only thing we do.
Because sunscreen has become the must-have accessory, the market for it has exploded. And like all rapidly expanding markets there is lots of ‘innovation’ to tempt the consumer from one brand to another.
When I was happily watching the lispy seagull tell me about the virtues of thlapping on sunscreen, I knew exactly what he meant. The tub of white zinc in the bathroom. It wasn’t exactly pleasant stuff. It had approximately the sticking power of superglue and the durability of house paint, but it did the job. No sun was getting through zinc in hurry. But it was difficult to apply and pretty greasy so there was plenty of scope for competition.
Now we can choose from thousands of products. Products for children, products that can be sprayed on, products that can be rolled on, products for sporty people, products to wear everyday and even products for babies. We don’t take time of day or sunniness into consideration at all, even when toting babies, because there’s a sunscreen for everything.
That greasy zinc was a physical barrier. It worked exactly the way house paint would work, by blocking out the sun. Two innovations enabled the explosion of more ‘user-friendly’ sunscreens, pulverizing the zinc so it didn’t stay white on the skin (but still worked) and the use of a whole new class of sunscreen that relied on chemical reactions to diffuse the UV radiation. Those chemical sunscreens are now what make up the majority of the stuff on the supermarket shelf.
Almost all chemical sunscreens sold in Australia are a mix of (generally) 4-methylbenzylidene-camphor (4MBC), Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), Oxybenzone, Homosalate, Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane and Octocrylene. And despite the huge variety in prices, labels and bottle shapes, there isn’t that much variety in what’s in them.
The problem with these convenient chemicals is that there is mounting evidence that they are endocrine disruptors – meaning they can affect human hormones (particularly reproductive and thyroid hormones).
4-MBC for example, is not approved for use in the US or Japan because the safety data is not sufficient. It is permitted in Europe but manufacturers and importers in Denmark agreed not to include it in sunscreen products marketed for children under 12. This was then extended to all products to ensure pregnant and breastfeeding women were not exposed (as the chemical was found to be present in breast milk).
Oxybenzone acts like estrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals and is associated with endometriosis in women. OMC has produced reproductive system and thyroid alterations in animal studies using doses similar to those used in sunscreens. Other studies have raised similar concerns about many of the other chemicals commonly used in sunscreens. Worse than that these substances appear to accumulate in humans (and the environment).
At the moment however, Australian regulators are happy to impose limits on the amounts that can be used rather than ban them outright. This is because they are not satisfied that sufficient quantities are absorbed through the skin to do damage. Frankly that is not terribly reassuring. These assessments typically do not assess the risk from inhaling aerosol or spray sunscreens or from ingesting them (for example by swimming in a pool or beach with people covered in sunscreen).
Similar concerns have been raised about the DNA disrupting potential of nano particles of zinc and titanium. Once again studies have shown them not to be absorbed at significant levels. But that proviso goes out the window when they are sprayed in the air or washed off in the pool.
The chemicals used in most sunscreens are not inert or harmless and many of them are banned in more cautious countries. But here their use is being championed mercilessly by an industry wearing a health halo. Leading the charge is the Cancer Council of Australia, an organization which itself makes almost $3m a year from selling sunscreens full of these chemicals. We are told to wear these sunscreens all the time and many of us do. Rather than adjust our lifestyle to the reality of dangerous radiation (as our parents did), we prefer to do exactly as we please and slather ourselves with these chemicals.
The evidence is worrying enough for me not to want to expose my kids to those substances on purpose. So we try to avoid being in the sun at all during the middle of the day and if we are, we’ll be wearing a hat and shirt as well as a sunscreen containing the only the ingredient that everybody agrees is safe, Zinc Oxide.
That immediately rules out anything sold by the Cancer Council and all the cheap sunscreens. But Invisible Zinc and many of the herbal gerbil brands are fine. Doing this still doesn’t save us from drinking the stuff everybody else is wearing at the beach and the pool but it’s the best I can do.