Winnipeg Free Press
By: Shamona Harnett
Dermatologists undoubtedly cringed when tawny Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen shared her thoughts about sunscreen earlier this year with London’s Daily Mail.
“I cannot put this poison on my skin,” the newspaper quoted her saying. “I do not use anything synthetic.”
After facing a firestorm for badmouthing sunscreen, Bundchen’s rep later told People magazine that the leggy, brunette does, indeed, use sunscreen — but only the kind that’s free of certain chemicals such as “oxybenzone, PABA, and retinyl palmitate.”
What’s Bundchen talking about? Is sunscreen really “poison?”
For decades, the medical establishment has extolled the importance of wearing sunscreen. They say it is key in filtering out the sun’s ultraviolet rays, thereby preventing sun-induced wrinkles and, more importantly, skin cancer.
Skin cancer, says Health Canada, is the most common form of cancer in the country. With more than 74,000 new cases expected this year (according to the Canadian Dermatology Association), it’s obviously something to avoid.
But conventional sunscreen is not the answer, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The non-profit advocacy organization, based in Washington D.C., pointed out that 60 per cent of the hundreds of sunscreens it looked at for its annual sunscreen report last year contains oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor some say can affect fertility, damage cells and cause allergies.
Forty per cent of the sunscreens in the 2010 report contain retinyl palmitate. Some controversial research suggests that this vitamin A compound, when exposed to sunlight, can accelerate skin cancer.
Information from the popular report is circulating in North America. It’s made sunscreen one of the latest in a long line of supposedly toxic everyday products, joining the likes of bisphenol A-laced baby bottles and phthalate-riddled vinyl toys.
For Winnipeg daycare owner Lisa Enns, the report is nothing new, she has avoided sunscreen for decades.
“For my own health, I’ve done a lot of research in the last 20 years,” says the 38-year-old Fort Rouge resident. “My pediatrician told me not to put sunscreen on the baby.”
The mother of three children, who are aged 17, 12 and two, says her doctor and naturopath have advised her to make sure they all get 15 to 20 minutes daily sun exposure, sans sunscreen.
The sun exposure, say the experts, will help their bodies make vitamin D, an ingredient that some researchers say helps prevent diseases such as rickets and multiple sclerosis.
When she and her baby will be out in the sun for more than an hour, she opts for Badger sunscreen, an American brand that gets the thumbs-up from EWG. The company says it is a product free of oxybenzone and vitamin A. She purchases the hard-to-come-by sunscreen from Thrive, a Corydon Avenue health store. She says the $19 price (for an 80 gram container) is worth it.
Enns says people are being duped into the sunscreen myth.
“The media and the government and society has scared people so much into wearing this garbage on our body, on our skin,” she says.
The Canadian Dermatology Association in a statement released in June urges people to wear sunscreen this summer and to avoid the sun during its peak hours from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The directive makes no mention of the toxicity of key ingredients in certain sunscreens but instead informs the public to look for sunscreens bearing the Canadian Dermatology Association logo. “These products have been reviewed by CDA member dermatologists as part of the CDA’s Sun Protection Program and have met all the approval criteria through independent laboratory testing,” says the statement.
Many brands labelled with the CDA logo contain oxybenzone and vitamin A.
A dermatologist who spoke with the Free Press about sunscreens in 2010 called the EWG report “a little bit of fear-mongering” and said that he would continue to recommend sunscreens to his patients, even if they contain the red-flagged ingredients.
Rick Smith, the Toronto-based executive director of Environmental Defence Canada and co-author of Slow Death By Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health, wants to make it clear that he’s all for sunscreens, as long as they don’t contain ingredients such as oxybenzone, vitamin A or phthalates.
Smith says he gets the point of view of dermatologists.
“I can understand why some specialists might not be terribly concerned with those specific chemical levels in that one product in isolation from everything else,” he says. “The problem is that the average Canadian is surrounded by synthetic chemicals from the moment they wake up in the morning to the moment they go to bed at night.”
Smith says it’s very clear that a woman’s breast cancer risk is at least partially related to the aggregate of chemicals that she’s exposed to over the course of her lifetime.
“Many of these chemicals that are in consumer products around us have not been adequately safety-tested because they came on the market prior to safety testing being required,” Smith says.
Although Health Canada has successfully banned certain harmful chemicals in products such as toys and baby bottles, the federal agency also needs to target sunscreens and their manufacturers, he says.
Too many of these chemicals — such as oxybenzone — are easily absorbed in the body when applied topically, says Smith.
University of Manitoba pharmacy professor and researcher Dr. Xiaochen Gu can prove that. Since 2002, he’s studied the absorption of DEET (a common mosquito repellant) when combined with popular sunscreen chemical oxybenzone.
His studies prove that both ingredients help the other penetrate the skin. He says the phenomenon is likely due to naturally occurring oils in skin that helps each chemical become more soluble and thereby permeate the skin.
So what does this mean for consumers?
Gu is reluctant to call sunscreen unsafe, but he urges the public not to use DEET and sunscreen containing oxybenzone together.
“Both compounds are a penetration enhancer,” Gu says. “(Using them together is) not dangerous. But certainly I don’t think it’s that desirable. Anything we pile on the skin that’s not for drug use, shouldn’t be absorbed into the body.”