07/11/2011 08:12 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2011

Is Sunscreen Safe? What You Don't Know Can Burn You

Having a new baby with precious soft new skin prompted me to start investigating sunscreen safety. What makes a sunscreen or sunblock safe and effective? If you are warned not to use sunscreen on children under six months old, what is in it that is harmful?

What is truly the best form of sun protection? Unfortunately, the more I looked into this issue the more I have become convinced that the only truly 100 percent safe form of sun protection is a cotton shirt and big floppy hat, or staying in the shade. Staying out of the sun completely is not an option for my family or myself; we are ocean lovers and avid surfers. So I have set out to find out what to avoid and what are the best options for protection.

There has been surprisingly little research on the safety of sunscreens and sunblocks, because it has taken the FDA 33 years to finalize the sunscreen safety standards first proposed in 1978. Last month, the FDA finally announced their guidelines, but the guidelines mainly focus on the claims made by makers of these products and labeling of the products. The new guidelines fail to establish a list of active ingredients, which the FDA considers safe and effective, nor do they approve new sun-filtering ingredients that may be less toxic, and the guidelines fail to bar high-SPF claims of increased protection, which in fact have negligible benefits. Yet, the FDA is recommending that we apply these chemicals every two hours when in the sun to avoid harmful effects of sun exposure.

Sunscreens are chemicals that are designed to be absorbed by the skin in order to form a sun barrier. Many of the chemicals have been broken down into nano-particles so that they can be sprayed or absorbed more easily. There is clear and plentiful evidence that they prevent sunburn, but there is very little known about the safety of these chemicals and their effectiveness in reducing skin cancer. There are also studies whose statistical evidence shows that in some cases these chemicals may actually increase your risk of cancer. There are three primary concerns with the chemicals in sunscreen:

1) They are potent free-radical generators which breakdown the DNA in cells and potentially make them more prone to cancer.

2) They often have strong estrogenic effects meaning the chemicals could actually interfere with normal sexual development.

3) They are synthetic chemicals that get stored in the fat cells of the body and accumulate over time. When you apply sunscreen, you are putting these chemicals directly into your system.

Sunblocks are products whose ingredients are primarily designed to sit on top of the skin and form an external barrier to block the rays of the sun. However, they may include many of the same chemicals as sunscreen. For my family, and myself, I feel more comfortable with sunblocks.

Tips for Buying Safer Sun Protection?

1) Be aware that any product labeled as sunscreen contains chemicals.

2) Read the labels, I'd suggest looking for and avoiding products with the following chemicals:

Benzophenones (dixoybenzone, oxybenzone)
PABA and PABA esters (ethyl dihydroxy propyl PAB, glyceryl PABA, p-aminobenzoic acid, padimate-O or octyl dimethyl PABA)
Cinnamates (cinoxate, ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate)
Salicylates (ethylhexyl salicylate, homosalate, octyl salicylate)
Digalloyl trioleate
Menthyl anthranilate
Avobenzone [butyl-methyoxydibenzoylmethane; Parsol 1789] - This is the only chemical sunscreen currently allowed by the European Community. However, its safety is still questionable since it easily penetrates the skin and is a strong free radical generator.

3) Avoid mists and sprays. Most of the chemical ingredients in these products have been broken down into Nano-particles, which are more dangerous internally, and may cause risk to lungs when inhaled as well.

4) Check out the research on the brands you are considering by going to the Environmental Working Groups Sunscreen Guide. The EWG's Sunscreen Guide ranks the safety of more than 1,700 sunscreens, SPF lip balms, moisturizers and makeup. It also lets you know what kind and quantity of information is available about a given product.

5) Buy mineral sunblock whose active ingredient is zinc and/or titanium dioxide.
By definition, sunblock is meant to stay on top of the skin and block the sun's rays. It is not designed for total absorption. My favorite brand is Coola, which is also all natural and contains many organic ingredients as well.


Sunscreen Chemicals: