HOWEVER, antioxidants don’t always behave as expected—and this brings us to another sunscreen controversy. Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, is an antioxidant added to many sunscreens and cosmetics (it’s also a food additive, used to fortify some dairy products and cereals). Although the FDA considers retinyl palmitate to be safe, research suggests that upon interaction with UVA light, the compound produces reactive oxygen species. Yes, that’s correct: An antioxidant added to organic sunscreens to help quench these potentially damaging reactive molecules is actually producing them instead. When’s winter?
Retinyl palmitate has gotten an especially bad reputation lately because of a series of studies (yet to be published, but available online) conducted by the National Institute of Health’s national toxicology program. Researchers there slathered mice with a retinyl palmitate lotion and then exposed them to different amounts of UV light. Some of the treated mice developed a greater number of malignant tumors than mice that weren’t given the cream, but it’s hard to know how to interpret the results in part because the mice had all been genetically engineered to be predisposed to cancer. Mice also have extremely thin skin, so compared to humans, UV light probably penetrates more easily into their lower skin layers.
At this point you might be thinking that the best solution is to just buy only non-organic, mineral-based sunscreens. Maybe, but these aren’t perfect, either. Although most mineral sunscreens don’t absorb UV light—the molecules sit on top of the skin and reflect or scatter the rays—they do leave a white, greasy film on the skin that many people find annoying. I realize annoying sounds preferable to damaging, but the only way sunscreen works is if your kids apply it. The less thick and greasy, the better. Newer “nano” formulations of these mineral sunscreens are much more pleasant, but they don’t reflect UV light as effectively—and they also absorb UV light in addition to reflecting it, which means they too can produce reactive oxygen species.
As for SPF, most dermatologists, and the Environmental Working Group, now recommend avoiding the super high SPFs—anything above 50—because they give us a false sense of security, and so we then stay out in the sun longer while forgoing necessary reapplication. The numbers are deceiving anyway: SPF 50 protects against 98 percent of the UVB rays, but SPF 30 protects against 97 percent of them—not exactly a critical difference.
And what about application method—sprays, gels, wipes, or old-fashioned lotions? The Environmental Working Group warns against sprays because of the risk that the chemicals could be inhaled or get into the eyes. But if your child won’t let you near her with anything but a cool mist, by all means use it—just ask him to hold his breath and close his eyes as you apply it. The EWG also warns against combination sunscreen/bug sprays, which may increase absorption of the repellant chemicals, and sunscreen wipes, which might not deliver adequate protection.
As for all the other sunscreen chemicals you might see listed on the back of your bottle: They have been FDA-approved, so they have been tested for safety to a certain degree, but few academic scientists have independently assessed their potential health effects because it’s difficult to get funded for such studies. “The funding agencies that we’ve submitted to have said that this is something that industry should fund, but industry has cut [budgets for] research and development,” explains Kerry Hanson, a chemist and sunscreen researcher at the University of California at Riverside. As a result, so-called “safe” sunscreen ingredients may simply be the ones that haven’t been as thoroughly researched.
The one thing that is clear is that any sunscreen is far better than no sunscreen—sunburns, especially in kids, are much more dangerous than a little oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. That said, don’t rely on sunscreen to do all the work. If you and your family spend lots of time outside, invest in sun hats and sun-protective clothes, which don’t pose any known risks—except maybe to your bank account.
The Kids would like to thank Kerry Hanson from the University of California at Riverside and Steven Wang from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.