Do you trust your sunscreen? An environmental watchdog group in the U.S. has raised some alarming health concerns about common sunscreens on the market. They only recommend eight per cent of them.

 

“The best sunscreen is a hat and a shirt,” says Sean Gray, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington, DC. “Sunscreen should be your last choice, not your first choice.”

 

The concerns are that some sunscreens contain harmful chemicals which could be linked to hormonal disturbances and even cancer.

 

He recommends people cover up, stay out of the sun when it is highest in the sky — between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. — and seek shade wherever possible.


If you want to err on the side of caution, you should avoid oxybencone, an ingredient commonly added to sunscreen, he adds.


“It’s a hormone disruptor,” says Gray. “It travels through the skin and into the blood. We’re not 100 per cent confident how it works in the body. Anybody should be worried about adding extra hormones to their body. All kinds of reproductive cancers are on the rise. Could it be related? Maybe.”


The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), on the other hand, is not concerned about oxybenzone in sunscreen, according to its website. While a small number of studies show that people who use sunscreen have higher risks of developing skin cancer, this is probably because they spend more time in the sun, reports the CCS.


The other ingredient to avoid, says Gray, is a vitamin A compound called retinyl palmitate, also fairly common in sunscreens. According to the EWG, the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. tested creams containing vitamin A on laboratory mice and found those mice developed lesions and tumours faster than mice who received cream without vitamin A.


“At best it’s frightening,” says Gray.


Gray also says not to be taken in by super-high SPF values.


“Anything with an SPF of 110 is absolutely ridiculous,” he says. “We’re watching these get higher and higher but the data doesn’t suggest you get better protection (over an SPF of about 50).”