Alarming new warnings about sunscreen products

Step Into the Light

No way around it–it’s disturbing.

Think of all the people who spread on sunscreen, then head out for fun in the sun. They believe sunscreen lowers their skin cancer risk. But instead of neutralizing cancer, it may actually be nurturing cancer.

That’s the very disturbing suggestion in the Environmental Working Group’s annual report on sunscreen products.

EWG researchers claim that a vitamin A derivative called retinyl palmitate (a common ingredient in sunscreens) may increase skin cancer growth. They base the claim on an FDA study. Agency researchers applied retinyl palmitate cream to lab animals and exposed them (and control group animals) to the equivalent of about 10 minutes of sunshine daily for one year.

Skin cancer lesions and tumors developed about 20 percent faster in the retinyl group, especially among animals that received higher doses.

Not surprisingly, representatives of the sunscreen industry are playing it down.

And the FDA? An agency spokesperson told AOL News: “We have thoroughly checked and are not aware of any studies.”

They can’t find their own study! (Or they WON’T find the study.)

I would say, “Unbelievable!” but really, it’s more like FDA business as usual: Larry, Curly and Moe have taken over day-to-day operations.

Feeling bulletproof

Meanwhile, EWG researchers have another important warning: Don’t believe the SPF numbers.

SPF is sun protection factor. And the numbering is simple. Say you use a sunscreen that’s SPF 10. That means you can expose yourself to sunlight 10 times longer than the time it usually takes you to begin developing a sunburn.

But when SPF numbers get absurdly high (and more and more, this is what we’re seeing) the SPF just isn’t logical.

The EWG report puts it this way: Say you begin to burn within 30 minutes of sun exposure. You apply a lotion that’s SPF 100. So…now you can safely sit in full sunshine for 50 hours without burning?

It just doesn’t make sense. And the FDA agrees. In a 2007 draft regulation, the agency called SPF numbers over 50 “inherently misleading.”

Also, studies have shown that when SPF is quite high, users begin to feel bulletproof. So they’re likely to apply less sunscreen than the amount recommended, and they tend to spend longer periods in direct sunlight.

In addition, the EWG report notes that higher SPF means higher levels of chemicals applied directly to the skin. And some of those chemicals have been linked to hormone disruption and tissue damage.

But the EWG isn’t anti-sunscreen. In fact, on the group’s website ( you can find recommendations for sunscreen products that provide the best protection with the fewest amounts of chemicals.

Even so, this is their bottom line recommendation: “The best sunscreen is a hat and a shirt.”

To that I would add: pants. But I’m just modest like that.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson


“Study: Many Sunscreens May Be Accelerating Cancer” AOL News, 5/24/10,
“What’s Wrong with High SPF?” Environmental Working Group, 2010,

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