How to avoid skin cancer without harming marine species

Sunscreens have been in the news a lot recently. Numerous scientific studies have shown that some sunscreens are harmful to corals, other marine life, and even human health.

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In response, in 2018 Hawaii passed the world’s first law banning the sale of two active sunscreen ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate. This year, Maui and Hawaii counties also banned the sale of sunscreens that contain 12 other active ingredients in what are called “chemical sunscreens,” derived from petroleum chemicals.

Some dermatologists speculate that banning chemical sunscreens will lead to less sunscreen use and more skin cancers. However, there is no data to show that chemical sunscreens do more than stop sunburn, which has relatively nothing to do with skin cancers: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, or melanoma.

What should we do to avoid skin cancer without harming marine species?

The answer is pretty clear: you should limit your skin’s exposure to the midday sun. If you are going to be in the sun, wear a hat and clothing that covers.

Sunscreen shouldn’t be your only protection, but if you’re going to be out in the sun without covering your clothes, you should at least use a sunscreen that has an active ingredient of 20-25% zinc oxide, with no tiny “nano” particles . (There are also mixtures of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide).

These are called “mineral sunscreens”. They remain on the surface of the skin, while chemical sunscreens penetrate the blood and tissues. Mineral sunscreens absorb much of the ultraviolet radiation that penetrates deep into the skin and causes cell damage and even skin cancer.

The only active sunscreen that has any science showing that it could significantly reduce squamous cell carcinoma and/or other skin cancers is zinc oxide (and possibly mixed with titanium dioxide). These two active minerals are the only ones that the Federal Food and Drug Administration says are safe and effective for human use based on current information.

Unlike these mineral sunscreens, studies show that chemical sunscreens can harm both human health and marine species. There are three main problems with chemical sunscreens:

  • Chemical sunscreens protect against sunburn by absorbing UVB radiation, but they do not prevent further penetration of UVA radiation that causes skin cancer. The problem is that people tend to spend more time in the sun if they are protected from sunburn, which leads to deeper damage to the skin. While some chemical sunscreens contain some UVA protection, they don’t provide as much UVA protection as mineral sunscreens. Some chemical sunscreens do not have protection against UVA rays.
  • Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the body’s organs through the skin and can remain on the body for long periods of time. They can disrupt hormones and cause reproductive cancers. They can even reach the brain cells and fetuses of pregnant women.
  • Chemical sunscreens wash out with the water and can harm corals and other marine life. Don’t be fooled by those who claim to be “reef safe” or “reef friendly”, when they contain petrochemicals, but not oxybenzone or octinoxate.

With respect to human health, the assumption that chemical sunscreens prevent skin cancer is based on subjective theory, not scientific fact. The World Health Organization published in 2000 that increasing your exposure to ultraviolet radiation (which is what sunscreens do if you stay on longer due to sunburn protection) increases your risk of skin cancer, period! ! Skin cancer deaths have increased by 54% in the US since 1975 (when we started promoting the use of sunscreen), with nearly 450,000 skin cancer deaths in the US since then!

At least 400 scientific papers have been published showing that most, if not all, of these chemical sunscreen actives are endocrine disruptors and can have developmental and reproductive toxicological effects not only to aquatic life, but to humans as well.

In addition, the FDA has told industry that they will need to conduct developmental and reproductive toxicology, carcinogenicity, and other toxicology studies, in addition to other studies, to show that these chemicals do not cause cancer or harm our children. The industry has not performed such tests to show that its products are safe for the last fifty years that it has sold these products.

Recently, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, with a majority of members closely associated with the personal care products industry, requested an additional study by the EPA. This is clearly a delaying tactic, similar to what the tobacco and fossil fuel industries have used to avoid regulation of their harmful products. Testing cosmetic and drug products for safety, or impact on marine species, is not the responsibility of the EPA.

As noted, the agency charged with protecting human health from harmful products, the FDA, recognizes only two active ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, as safe and effective. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, not the EPA, has primary jurisdiction over marine species. NOAA concluded that sunscreens harm green algae, corals, sea urchins, mussels, fish, and dolphins.

(Search “NOAA and sunscreens” or use this link to go to the NOAA infographic https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/sunscreen-corals.html).

Given all these problems with chemical sunscreens, it’s fitting that the state of Hawaii has banned the sale of two of them and now the counties of Maui and Hawaii have banned the sale of all non-mineral (chemical) sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens should be banned as a precautionary measure unless and until the industry demonstrates that it has developed products that are safe and effective for both human health and marine species.

Editor’s Note: Toxicologist Joseph DiNardo, Denis Dudley, MD, Maternal Fetal Medicine/Reproductive Endocrinology, and Sharyn Laughlin, MD, Photobiology/Dermatology, contributed to this Community Voice.

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