First it was pesticide-covered vegetables. Then it was bisphenol A in baby bottles and phthalate-ridden rubber duckies. Now eco-conscious parents have a new villain to target: sunscreen.
Parents are circulating information from groups such as the Environmental Working Group, which last month released a report [http://www.ewg.org/2010sunscreen] slamming most sunscreens because of potentially harmful chemicals such as retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone. They endorsed only 39 of 500 common sunscreens on the market.
In addition to seeking brands without flagged chemicals, Toronto mother Nadine Silverthorne has also downsized the dose she uses on her two children, applying it only on areas likely to burn, such as noses and stroller-exposed knees.
Ms. Silverthorne, a blogger at Sweetmama.ca, figures that in addition to reducing her children’s chemical load, she’s also ensuring they get a daily dose of vitamin D from the sun.
Of course, she says she may reconsider when on vacation. “If you’re in the Caribbean, you have to use your best judgment,” she says.
Parents like Ms. Silverthorne who decide to eschew chemicals are turning to products by companies such as EWG high-scorers Badger and California Baby, that rely on the minerals zinc and titanium as UV barriers. Others are choosing to forego sunscreen altogether in favour of sun avoidance and sun-protective clothing.
The Canadian Paediatric Society and Health Canada continue to recommend sunscreen and post no specific warnings about ingredients in their online materials aimed at parents.
Rick Smith, the Toronto-based executive director of the advocacy group Environmental Defence, says parents are eager for information about product safety.
“This is an area the government needs to get a move on,” says Dr. Smith, the author of Slow Death By Rubber Duck: How The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects our Health. “These are intimate products that people smear on themselves and their kids everyday.”
For Lesa Hannah, a magazine beauty editor, the alarm bells first went off when she attended a presentation by a natural beauty products line that highlighted chemicals in sunscreens.
“My whole world crashed down,” says the Toronto mother. “I didn’t know the possible dangers, especially where my daughter was concerned.”
Until then, she had been slathering her daughter with sunscreen from head to toe. She now shells out for the more expensive formulas that are free of flagged chemicals.
But Jason Rivers, a professor of clinical dermatology at the University of British Columbia, says that on balance, the risk of skin cancer outweighs the risks from the sunscreen ingredients – and the risks courted by using too little.
“I use it on my kids,” he says. Still, Dr. Rivers says he would encourage parents to avoid products with oxybenzone when they can.
And Ms. Hannah says she is conscious that this is just the latest in a long line of hazards to keep in perspective. “Every day there’s something else to worry about,” she says. “I try not to freak out.”