Don't Retract Pack

Many Sunscreens May Accelerate Cancer

By Andrew Schneider
posted with permission

Almost half of the 500 most popular sunscreen products may actually increase the speed at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer because they contain vitamin A or its derivatives, according to an evaluation of those products released today.

We have also learned through documents and interviews, that the Food and Drug Administration has known of the potential danger for as long as a decade without alerting the public, which the FDA denies.

The study was released with Memorial Day weekend approaching. Store shelves throughout the country are already crammed with tubes, jars, bottles and spray cans of sunscreen.

The white goop, creams and ointments might prevent sunburn. But don't count on them to keep the ultraviolet light from destroying your skin cells and causing tumors and lesions, according to researchers at Environmental Working Group.

In their annual report to consumers on sunscreen, they say that only 39 of the 500 products they examined were considered safe and effective to use.

The report cites these problems with bogus sun protection factor (SPF) numbers:
  • The use of the hormone-disrupting chemical oxybenzone, which penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream.
  • Overstated claims about performance.
  • The lack of needed regulations and oversight by the Food and Drug Administration.

But the most alarming disclosure in this year's report is the finding that vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol and retinyl palmitate, may speed up the cancer that sunscreen is used to prevent.
Chart showing relationship between Vitamin A and tumors.
A dangerous additive

The industry includes vitamin A in its sunscreen formulations because it is an anti-oxidant that slows skin aging.

But the EWG researchers found the initial findings of an FDA study of vitamin A's photocarcinogenic properties, meaning the possibility that it results in cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.

"In that yearlong study, tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent faster in lab animals coated in a vitamin A-laced cream than animals treated with a vitamin-free cream," the report said.

The conclusion came from EWG's analysis of initial findings released last fall by the FDA and the National Toxicology Program, the federal government's principle evaluator of substances that raise public health concerns.

EWG's conclusions were subsequently scrutinized by outside toxicologists.

Based on the strength of the findings by FDA's own scientists, many in the public health community say they can't believe nor understand why the agency hasn't already notified the public of the possible danger.

"There was enough evidence 10 years ago for FDA to caution consumers against the use of vitamin A in sunscreens," Jane Houlihan, EWG's senior vice president for research, told AOL News.

"FDA launched this one-year study, completed their research and now 10 years later, they say nothing about it, just silence."

On Friday, the FDA said the allegations are not true.

"We have thoroughly checked and are not aware of any studies," an FDA spokesperson told AOL News. She said she checked with bosses throughout the agency and found no one who knew of the vitamin A sunscreen research being done by or on behalf of the agency.

But documents from the FDA and the National Toxicology Program showed that the agency had done the research.

"Retinyl palmitate was selected by (FDA's) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition for photo-toxicity and photocarcinogenicity testing based on the increasingly widespread use of this compound in cosmetic retail products for use on sun-exposed skin," said an October 2000 report by the National Toxicology Program.

FDA's own website said the animal studies were done at its National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Ark. And it was scientists from the FDA center and National Toxicology Program who posted the study data last fall.

In a perfect world

The ideal sunscreen would completely block the UV rays that cause sunburn, immune suppression and damaging free radicals. It would remain effective on the skin for several hours and not form harmful ingredients when degraded by UV light, the report said.

Graph of melanoma of the skin rates from 1975 to 2006.
Graph of melanoma of the skin rates from 1975 to 2006. APC stands for annual percent change and AAPC stands for average annual percent change.

But in the U.S., there is currently no sunscreen that meets all of these criteria. European countries have more chemical combinations to offer, but in the U.S. the major choice is between the "chemical" sunscreens, which have inferior stability, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body's hormone systems, and "mineral" sunscreens zinc and titanium dioxide.

Increasingly, as AOL News reported in March, the industry is using titanium dioxide that is made nanosized, which a growing number of researchers believe have serious health implications.

The sunscreen industry cringes when EWG releases its yearly report -- this is its fourth. The industry charges that the advocacy group wants to do away with all sunscreen products, a claim that is not accurate.

The report's researchers clearly say that an effective sunscreen prevents more damage than it causes, but it wants consumers to have accurate information on the limitations of what they buy and on the potentially harmful chemicals in some of those products.

EWG does warn consumers not to depend on any sunscreen for primary protection from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Hats, clothing and shade are still the most reliable sun protection available, they say.

Don't count on the numbers

Some of us are old enough to remember when the idea of having a tan was good, a sign of health, when billboards and magazine ads featured the Coppertone girl showing off her tan.

Going for that tan, we coated our kids and ourselves with sun blockers with sun protection factors of 1 or 2. Some overly cautious parents might have smeared on a 4 during the hottest part of a day.

But we've learned of the dangers that come from exposure to the sun's rays, especially ultraviolet A and B. So today, drugstore shelves are crammed with sunscreens boasting SPFs of 30, 45, 80 or even higher.

However, the new report says those numbers are often meaningless and dangerous because products with high SPF ratings sell a false sense of security, encouraging people using them to stay out in the sun longer.

"People don't get the high SPF they pay for," the report says. "People apply about a quarter of the recommended amount. So in everyday practice, a product labeled SPF 100 really performs like SPF 3.2, an SPF 30 rating equates to a 2.3 and an SPF 15 translates to 2."

In 2007, the report says, the FDA published proposed regulations that would prohibit manufacturers from labeling sunscreens with an SPF higher than "SPF 50." The agency wrote that higher values would be "inherently misleading," given that "there is no assurance that the specific values themselves are in fact truthful."

This is being widely ignored by the sunscreen makers who are heavily advertising their 80, 90 and 100 SPF products.

"Flouting FDA's proposed regulation," companies substantially increased their high-SPF offerings in 2010 with one in six brands now listing SPF values higher than 50. "Neutrogena and Banana Boat stand out among the offenders, with six and four products labeled as 'SPF 100,' respectively," the new report says.

Environmental Working Group's Best Sunscreens List

Peaceful Parenting Reader's Picks

Andrew Schneider is the Senior Public Health Correspondent for AOL News. Schneider is a two-time Pulitzer winner, and an investigative reporter who uncovered the nation's largest environmental disaster, among dozens of other stories. He writes at Cold Truth.



  1. Oh this is such a good article!

    Another concern about sunscreens (whether natural or not) is that blocking UV rays also inhibits the body's ability to make vitamin D. Cases of rickets, which used to be relatively rare, are now on the increase.

    I think we were made to be in the sun! Though, we should be cautious with our children's skin and be sure they are getting healthy, safe* levels of sun exposure.

    (*I think sunscreen companies would tell me that there is no 'safe' level of exposure to UV rays, but I'm sure you know what I mean!)

  2. It is a good article. I had no idea! There is definitely a health level of sun exposure, but I think we were actually made to live in the trees :) LOL Everyone in my family burns ( easily and severely). I get a strong burning sensation, though, from most sunblocks. (allergy that developed in my teens). I have only found 1 type that my skin tolerates :( Off to see if it's on the list....

  3. Thanks for this post! I will be doing some sunscreen research today to try to find myself new daily face and body lotions! I had been using neutrogena for years thinking I was slathering on the health. Scary!

  4. I wonder if the rising incidence of skin cancer has anything to do with the water we're bathing in, with chlorine, chloramines, trihalomethanes, fluoride, arsenic, etc. - a carcinogenic brew. We could easily reduce two of these (fluoride and arsenic) if we stopped fluoridation - fluoridating agents contribute the bulk of the arsenic in drinking water. Fluoridation proponents have the gall to say that the level of arsenic, once diluted, is of no significance to human health. The nature of carcinogens is that ANY level of exposure carries with it cancer risk.

  5. You say this, " titanium dioxide that is made nanosized, which a growing number of researchers believe have serious health implications." And yet you recommend an Avalon sunscreen in your personal list which contains titanium dioxide. Why would you recommend it?

  6. Holly - the pp readers choices are just those that peaceful parenting parents have selected as their favorites in the past. The author of the article has a "best sunscreen list" as well which is the first link above. Thank you for pointing this out, we'll take a look at Avalon, as well as adding more without the titanium dioxide.

  7. I would need much more proof. Im an esthetician and was taught differently. A spf of 50 works the same as 70 blocking rays by 96 percent. However a spf of 30 blocks rays by 32 percent. And vitamin a helps acne, anti aging, and is a antioxadint which helps r skin from aging. Vitamin a has many other benifits and if was imposed such a risk why is it in many on our eye and face creams. Also there r vitamin a pills and in our regular everyday products. Im sorry but not wearing sunscreen at all is so much more dangersous to us for cancer and photoaging

  8. Yes, coconut oil. Its a natural sun screen and works great!

  9. Coconut oil doesn't protect fair skin very well. The only think safe is a hat.

  10. For any type of skin:

  11. Another great article along the lines of The Mother Magazine - Click on "Science of Sun Exposure" to pull up the PDF

    My sister in law forwarded me this blog post after talking to her about my job. I'm the marketing director for De La Terre Skincare and one of our products, the Sun Diffuser, is a truly natural alternative to traditional sun screens. It boosts the skin's natural ability to defend against the sun. We also talked about how it is a bit on the pricey side for their family (6 and counting) however when a product a) works b) is safe and c) is incredibly high quality (therefore a little goes a long way) then I think most people would agree it is well worth it.

    Check it out and contact myself directly with any questions! The article alone is worth a look!