New guidelines released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reveal that not all sunscreens are effective, and some can be considered dangerous as they may increase the risk of suffering from skin cancer.
Among the recommendations, the EWG reports that a high SPF does not necessarily mean that a particular sunscreen is better. Also, additives included in sunscreen may open the way to developing skin cancer.
The EWG analysed almost 1,500 different products and scored them depending on their effectiveness.
Sunscreen prevents sunburns, but not skin cancer
For starters, the EWG assures that there is no proof that sunscreens prevent the common forms of skin cancer, as the rates of melanoma or skin cancer in the U.S. have tripled over the course of the last 35 years.
Additionally, the melanoma death rate for white males, the group at highest risk, doubled from 2.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 1975 to 4.4 deaths in 2014.
The exact reason why this occurs is not yet clear. Researchers agree that family history, frequent tanning, exposure to UV radiation, and severe sunburns can be risk factors contributing to the appearance of the disease.
The CDC reports that at least 7 out of every 10 adults believe that they protect themselves from the sun, while the market for products to protect against the sun is growing significantly with each passing year.
Government agencies determined that companies producing sunscreens do not provide their clients with the expected results. On the other hand, it appears that the risk of skin cancer is reduced only when the person avoids the sun by wearing hats and clothing, as confirmed by a 2011 study. What’s curious is that outdoor workers display lower rates of skin cancer compared to indoor workers, according to a 2009 study.
A higher SPF does not mean better protection from sunbeams
One of the conclusions drawn by the EWG is that the people who tend to rely on sunscreens are more likely to burn. Then, these people are more likely to get cancer.
A common misconception is that a higher SPF means better protection from the sun. Theoretically, a sun protection factor (SPF) of 100 would allow the user to expose its skin to the sun 100 times longer before being burnt. This can be imagined as if a person that gets sunburns after 30 minutes could stay exposed to sunbeams for 50 hours.
Studies suggest that people are more likely to buy and use sunscreen with high SPF, thinking that it offers a greater degree of protection when it might actually not be the case.
The EWG assures that the extra protection from higher SPF sunscreens is “negligible.” If applied correctly, SPF 50 sunscreens block 98 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. Sunscreen with an SPF between 30 and 50 will always offer a decent degree of sunburn protection, even for people with sensitive skin.
Furthermore, studies have analysed the real SPF content of several sunscreens, and not all products provide the protection that they offer. Procter & Gamble analysed competitor’s products and recommended that SPF ratings should not go over 50 to avoid misleading consumers. By being overconfident on using a high-SPF sunscreen, the user may think that it is safe to remain exposed to the sun for much longer. Studies have shown that when provided with a high-SPF sunscreen, bathers were more likely to spend more time in the sun.
As if it were not enough, a higher SPF is obtained thanks to a higher concentration of sun-filtering chemicals. These chemicals can be dangerous, causing allergies and tissue damage. Because there is no justified reason to use products with a higher SPF, then using said products only puts the person in an unnecessary degree of risk.
Australia does not permit sunscreens with an SPF greater than 30, while Europe and Japan set the limit at 50. Canada allows for a “50+” mark. The FDA is yet to enforce a regulation on how sunscreens are labelled.
On a more serious note, many sunscreens employ vitamin A as an additive. The EWG suggests that vitamin A could promote the development of skin tumours and lesions when used on skin exposed to sunlight. Many cosmetics also employ vitamin A, and health agencies worldwide often recommend against using these products in the lips and other parts of the body that are frequently exposed to sunlight.
Despite all of this, the sun’s beams are healthy for us, as they help the body produce vitamin D, which helps bones become stronger, and the immune system be more efficient. Vitamin D also reduces the risk of suffering several types of cancers.
1 out of every 4 Americans has low levels of vitamin D, babies, and people with limited sun exposure being the ones at a higher risk. Although supplements exist, the best source for vitamin D remains to be a healthy degree of exposure to sunlight.