- They provide strong sun protection with few health concerns.
- They don’t break down in the sun.
- Zinc oxide offers good protection from UVA rays. Titanium oxide less so, but better than most other active ingredients.
Sunscreens made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide generally score well in EWG’s ratings because:
More research and more specific FDA guidelines are essential to reduce the risk and maximize the sun protection of mineral sunscreens. Yet even with the existing uncertainties, we believe that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide lotions are among the best choices on the American market.
The shape and size of the particles affect sun protection. The smaller they are, the better the SPF protection and the worse the UVA protection. Manufacturers must strike a balance: small particles provide greater transparency but larger particles offer greater UVA protection. The form of zinc oxide most often used in sunscreens is larger and provides greater UVA protection than the titanium dioxide products that appear clear on the skin.
Nanoparticles in sunscreen don’t penetrate the skin. Some studies indicate that nanoparticles can harm living cells and organs when administered in large doses. But a large number of research studies have produced no evidence that zinc oxide nanoparticles can cross the skin in significant amounts (SCCS 2012). A real-world study tested penetration of zinc oxide particles of 19 and 110 nanometers on human volunteers who applied sunscreens twice daily for five days (Gulson 2010). Researchers found that less than 0.01 percent of either form of zinc entered the bloodstream.
While neither study could determine if zinc nanoparticles penetrated the skin the European regulators concluded it was most likely zinc ions and not nanoparticles that traveled through the skin (SCCS 2012).
Nanoparticles could cause lung damage when inhaled. Inhalation of nanoparticles is dangerous for many reasons. EWG strongly discourages the use of loose powder makeup or spray sunscreens using titanium dioxide or zinc oxide of any particle size.
The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens has classified titanium dioxide as a possible carcinogen when inhaled in high doses (IARC 2006b). The lungs have difficulty clearing small particles, and the particles may pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. Insoluble nanoparticles that penetrate skin or lung tissue can cause extensive organ damage.
Nanoscale zinc was only recently approved for use in European sunscreens, except in sprays and powders (EU SCCS 2012).
When zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles wash off skin, they enter the environment, with unknown effects. The implications of nanoparticle pollution on the environment have not been sufficiently assessed (Börm 2006).
The potential negative environmental effects of nanoscale and conventional zinc and titanium should be carefully studied and weighed against the environmental impact of other UV blockers. Sunscreen ingredients have been shown to damage coral, accumulate in fish and the environment and disrupt hormones in fish and amphibians (Buser 2006, Danovaro 2008 Giokas 2007, Kunz 2004, Kunz 2006, Weisbrod 2007).
For all sunscreens, including nanoscale zinc and titanium, there is an urgent need to carry out thorough environmental assessments so that regulators have the data they need to begin to control hazards associated with widespread use of these and other chemical ingredients in personal care products.
Don’t depend on sunscreen
EWG strongly disagrees with FDA’s decision to allow sunscreen makers to claim that their products prevent cancer. We are concerned that this policy will lead people to rely on sunscreen use alone to mitigate their cancer risk, and that this may backfire.
People who rely on sunscreens tend to burn, and burns are linked to cancer. The CDC has reported that the percentage of American adults who say they have gotten sunburned has increased since 2005 (CDC 2012).
Stanford University dermatologists who reviewed CDC national survey data concluded that people who relied solely on sunscreens for sun protection had more sunburns than people who reported infrequent sunscreen use but wore hats and clothing to shield themselves from the sun (Linos 2011).
- Do not use sunscreen as a tool to prolong your time in the sun.
- Cover up! Hats, shirts and sunglasses are the best protection.
- Avoid sunburn.
- Do not use a tanning bed or sunbathe.
- Protect kids! Early life sunburns are worse, so keep little ones out of the hot sun.
- Pick a sunscreen with strong UVA protection.
- Get vitamin D. There is speculation but not proof that adequate levels of vitamin D can reduce the risk of melanoma. But we know that vitamin D is good for combatting other types of cancer. Commit to getting screened for vitamin D deficiency.
- Examine your skin. Check your skin regularly for new moles that are tender or growing. Ask your primary care doctor how often you should see a dermatologist.
What can I do to reduce my risk of getting skin cancer?
In light of the shortcomings of today’s sunscreens, EWG suggests that you adjust your attitude about sun exposure.
1. There’s no proof that sunscreens prevent most skin cancer.
Rates of melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer – have tripled over the past 35 years. Most scientists and public health agencies – including the FDA itself – have found very little evidence that sunscreen prevents most types of skin cancer. Read more.
7. Mineral sunscreens contain nano-particles.
Most zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based sunscreens contain nanoparticles one-twentieth the width of a human hair, to reduce or eliminate the chalky white tint that larger particles leave on the skin. Based on the available information, EWG gives a favorable rating to mineral sunscreens, but the FDA should restrict the use of unstable or UV-reactive forms of minerals that would lessen skin protection. Read more.
EWG remains concerned that a common sunscreen additive, a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, can harm skin. Government test data shows more skin tumors and lesions on animals treated with this ingredient and exposed to sunlight.
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