Ever feel caught between a rock and a hard place? That's what I'm feeling after reading the JAMA report on sunscreens. First some disclosure: my father died from skin cancer complications and I am your typical fair-skinned, blue-eyed, auburn-haired walking sunburn magnet. Slathering on the sunscreen is second nature to me. Then last year Hawaii became the first to ban certain sunscreens that have been shown harmful to coral reefs. Even though I live inland, there's plenty of waterways around, and who knows what other environments it may affect, so I switched to a mineral-based sunscreen and tried to cover up more. That switch helped to avoid the culprits in the current JAMA report: avobenzone, ecamsule, octocrylene, and oxybenzone. Granted, the JAMA findings are from a trial study by the FDA, a trial used to establish if more research is needed (which it is). There are studies dating back to 1997 that talk about how the active ingredients are absorbed into the blood stream, but the companies producing these products never quite got around to conducting the safety studies. Hopefully, the FDA trial study will get the show on the road.
So, what's the problem with absorbing these ingredients? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a wonderful chart on the most common active ingredients and any studies about side effects. Effects tend to be either in the hormone disruption area or in skin allergies. Some inactive ingredients can also cause skin reactions, and these are mentioned in a separate paragraph. Pushing for better absorption studies will give us all a better idea of how much our body is absorbing and if that amount is over the maximum FDA recommendations.
We know that sunscreens help in the fight to prevent skin cancer, so aside from switching sunscreens, what else can you do? Many outdoor companies are taking the clothing route, coming out with their own lines of UPF (ultraviolet protective factor) clothing. Like sunscreen, the protection does not last indefinitely. In the case of clothing, there is a recommended number of washings before the protection is negligible. Even regular clothing provides some protection, so anything that covers your skin will help. Sticking to shady spots whenever possible, along with avoiding the peak sun-exposure hours of 10am to 4pm also cuts down on your risk. Looks like I'll be enjoying my gimlets under the shade of a nice, big umbrella from now on. Cheers!