damned if you do, damned if you don’t: sunscreen edition

As if the 100 degree temps in the Northeast weren’t enough motivation for you to give up on summer and just keep the kids inside until school starts, there’s been a recent groundswell of information suggesting that sunscreens may be carcinogenic. Or just really bad. Or at least not totally definitely fine. Watch this clip on CNN, called “Could Sunscreen Cause Cancer?” where Dr. Sanjay Gupta successfully avoided answering the question this way:

We’re not SURE that a lot of these things are dangerous. But we’re not positive that they’re safe, either.

This all started with a study from the Environmental Working Group, who have a list of what they consider to be 39 “safe” sunscreens, and the hundreds more that, in their opinion, aren’t. 

Guess which side of the fence the half-dozen half-used sunscreens in my house fall on, as well as all of those handy roll-on face sticks? Yup. 

If you want to be paralyzed with indecision, like I am, about whether you really need to ditch all the sunscreen in your house and start over, you can look up your own sunscreens on the EWG website. 

You can also check out their nine surprising truths about sunscreen, which I would call something more like “relatively shocking.” Number One? There’s no consensus, apparently, on whether sunscreens actually prevent skin cancer after all. Number Two? Sunscreens might INCREASE the risk of skin cancers for some people. (See, I told you.)

The sunscreen industry is predictably pooh-poohing this study, saying everything in their products has been FDA-approved. Which is true. Of course, so were bisphenol A, and melamine, and all those cough syrups for infants that were pulled from shelves once it dawned on someone that they’d never actually been tested on infants. The FDA testing on the sunscreen ingredients EWG is flagging was done 30 years ago. 

Here’s the EWG is saying: Avoid sunscreens with “retinol” or “retinyl palmitate” in their list of ingredients. Oxybenzone is a “notorious endocrine disruptor.” (Notorious? to whom? since when?) Here I’ve been slathering on the oxybenzone, thinking I was a good mother.  Now, to be fair, the good Dr. Gupta says that the oxybenzone dangers have so far only been proven in mice. So there are no definite answers yet.

Great. So it’s up to me whether to be neurotic, throw out a house full of sunscreen, and spend a hundred dollars on the schmancy recommended brands– or whether to shrug, figure it’s probably fine, and keep doing what I’m doing– or to throw up my hands, give up on what is easily the most annoying ten minutes of my day (lubing up three whining children), and send ’em outside to fry. 

None of those seems right. I’m not sure what I’m doing yet, but as my eloquent sister-in-law, who first tipped me off to this whole story, put it:

I’m SO not a worrier. But this really pisses me off. 

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

stressdmom July 6, 2010 at 7:39 pm

I agree, you really can't win. When I was pregnant a couple of years ago, I loved peanut butter. Then just before my daughter was born, they said "no peanut butter, it causes allergies in the babies." Then, when my daughter was 1 her doctor said it was probably good to expose her earlier, because it prevents allergies. It will always be something. All you can do is hope for the best and do what you can with what you know. Something is gonna kill all of us eventually!


Tracey July 6, 2010 at 10:29 pm

I just finished reading your book. Great, Loved it. In fact, before I even finished it I bought another copy and gave it to a friend. We often sit and mull over all of the contradicting information that we are bombarded with on a daily basis.
As for the sunscreen, I think that I will take my chances with the bad side effects than suffer with sunburns on my boys.
Happy to have found your blog… it is like the book doesn't end. 🙂


Krista July 7, 2010 at 1:14 am

How funny – I just read about this last week. I did throw out my old sunscreens – seemed really risky considering it's entering my children's lungs and largest organ of their bodies.

So – I spent a fortune on the "good stuff" and at least feel good about my decision when I send them off to the pool or outside to play. But the prices are ridiculous!


Lisa Frack, EWG July 7, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Amy, Thanks for this great post about the sunscreen conundrum. I work for EWG and have 2 young kids, and know how frustrating it can be. While I do my very best with hats, shirts, shade, etc… we do sometimes need sunscreen and I now lather it on – frequently. We need the FDA to step up here! Thanks again for sharing the info we put together in this year's sunscreen guide. Best, Lisa Frack, EWG Social Media Manager


Alexandra July 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I have become so conscious of environmental hazards. How can one not? I'm so glad I am not a young mother anymore. I would be going crazy trying to protect my kids from toxic chemicals in the environment. I love the way Dr. Gupta, who has three small daughters, has gotten on board and is pushing the issue with all his might. The chemical industry will not give up without a fight. Remember, we are all in this together. You have to ask yourself, why did the American Chemical Council come out praising BPA this winter after so many scientists have spoken up against it???? Profit? Greed? Livelihood? Just this morning I told one of our B&B guests about the EWG Skindeep database to check her sunscreen. And, I'm so glad I discovered the Web site Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families which tells the truth about all these toxic substances that have infiltrated our lives.


Meredith L. July 7, 2010 at 2:58 pm

I went to that website, too, to find "EWG-approved" sunblock for my 21-month old son. So I bought some. And know what? It was crappy, and despite being a major brand (Coppertone) and despite assuring me that it was waterproof, it all slid off my son's skin in the playground sprinklers.

Also: when we put sunblock on him he acts like it is made out of acid spiked with broken glass shards, so we have to use the spray-on stuff. Which isn't EWG-approved.

Which…oy. Maybe I will just keep him inside until September. It's too damn hot here in NY anyway.


Courtney July 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm

I base most of my decisions when I am confused on the lesser of two evils…they aren't SURE if sunscreen causes cancer, but they are pretty darn sure that the sun causes cancer! So my baby is lathered up in her baby sunscreen, always!


Amy Wilson July 7, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Courtney- I'm with you, but isn't that sad? Slather on the stuff that might be dangerous in order to avoid what we know is dangerous. Except when it's not, and you avoid it too much, and get a vitamin D deficiency. What a merry-go-round.

Lisa of the EWG- thanks for responding! There's no question your site is doing a public service. I used to think I wouldn't worry about stuff like this until the FDA said I should. I think we've all learned the hard way that that isn't so smart.


Courtney July 7, 2010 at 6:25 pm

It is sad! I think, though, that for the sake of my sanity, I have to let some stuff go. You can get hit by a car walking across the street so you better cherish each day you have, that sort of thinking. So I try to live my life being aware of dangerous things, but not letting the fear guide my life, does that make sense?!


Paola July 7, 2010 at 7:23 pm

This is freaking me out!! the worst is that the brand I use is not even on the list: Ombrelle from L'Oréal!! now what?? I am going on vacation for 3 weeks next Saturday and was planning on spending most of it at the beach!


Anonymous July 24, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Glad to see this info on sunscreen is finally hitting mainstream. Check out http://www.mercola.com for more stuff to make you p.o.'d.

We use clothing to protect our children from the sun, but like to make sure they get some unadulterated sunlight for their vitamin D.


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