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Sunscreen: Experts Disagree On Just How Dangerous It Is

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It seems the public and the science community are divided on just how dangerous sunscreen is to humans.  Oxybenzone, an ingredient in over 40% of sunscreen brands is either a major danger to people, or not harmful in small amounts.

According to Yahoo! [1]:

On the anti-oxybenzone side are natural health and beauty advocates armed with data from the nonprofit health watchdog Environmental Working Group [2]. “We do know there are potential hazards of oxybenzone in terms of endocrine disruption,” explains EWG’s Senior Scientist Dave Andrews. The EWG lists over 20 studies and references citing oxybenzone as a hormone disrupter and allergen that can cause cellular level changes [3]. Andrews points to a recent study in Denmark [4] in which male fish exposed to higher concentration of oxybenzone developed characteristics of female fish and higher estrogen levels. 

However, Dr. Steve Wang who is a spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation and the head of dermatological surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Basking Ridge says he isn’t concerned about oxybenzone as a hormone disrupter [5]. “There is no doubt there is an estrogen binding affinity,” admits Dr. Wang. “But it is very weak, but about 1000 times weaker than the estrogen molecules themselves.”

Another issue with oxybenzone is that it penetrates the skin and is absorbed by the body. “There is clear evidence of exposure in humans. The CDC has found oxybenzone in 97% of Americans with levels in women twice as high as in men,” states Andrews [6].  While that number is alarming some experts believe that the levels are low enough to not to matter.  “While there have been reports of systemic absorption of oxybenzone and an “estrogenic” effect, a study in JAMA showed that the amounts you would have to use would be impossibly large in order for it to be a concern,” states Manhattan dermatologist Dr. Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas [7]. 

For many, the number of red flags and ongoing studies about oxybenzone is cause enough to avoid it completely. Beautycounter is a brand committed to safety in their products banning over 1500 chemicals that are considered harmful. “Beauty Counter [8] has done a pretty exhaustive review on sunscreens, and we won’t use any chemical sunscreens because there are too many studies that indicate there is reason for concern,” explains Mia Davis, Beautycounter’s Head of Health & Safety [9]. “Oxybenzone didn’t pass our ingredient screen because it is easily absorbed into the skin and it may be a hormone disrupting chemical. When mineral blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are so good at blocking rays we see no reason to use hormone disrupting chemicals.” 

Despite the widespread panic, the American Academy of Dermatology, Skin Cancer Foundation and the FDA all say that oxybenzone is safe. When reached for comment an FDA representative sent this statement: “Oxybenzone is one of 16 ingredients currently marketed under the sunscreen monograph as a generally recognized as safe and effective active ingredient in over-the-counter sunscreen products.”

 “People need to understand the difference between risk and hazard,” says Dr. Wang. “It is an effective UVA, UVB blocker. I use oxybenzone, my family uses it and I am personally not concerned. If you talk to the toxicology experts they share the same thoughts.”  However Dr. Wang, admits, “With science you don’t always know all the truth, you are working with pieces of information. Can they be right?  Maybe.”

For now the anti-oxybenzone camp isn’t backing down, and given that we don’t truly know the long-term effect of using certain chemicals it’s understandable.  “I think we have a difference of opinion,” says Andrews of Dr. Wang’s comments. “We have raised a number of concerns, and we know there are better options and alternatives on the market that don’t absorb through your skin.”  What blockers does Andrews rely on? “I lean towards zinc oxide as providing superior protection.” 

Sources:

[1]

[2] http://www.ewg.org/2015sunscreen/hall-of-shame/

[3] http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient.php?ingred06=704372

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26118430

[5] http://www.skincancer.org/

[6] http://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/pdf/FourthReport_UpdatedTables_Feb2015.pdf

[7] http://www.drmacrene.com/pages/dr-macrene-expertise

[8] http://www.beautycounter.com/

[9] http://www.beautycounter.com/our-story/#storyingredientprocess

Royce Christyn
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