Over the last 40 to 50 years we have increased the number of synthetic sunscreen chemicals we use with virtually no extra thought as to how vulnerable we are to these chemicals or how little we know about their subtle and accumulative toxic effects. We assume that because these chemicals are so easily purchased off the supermarket shelf, they must be safe to use. Wrong! Many of these chemicals are known to be toxic and few of them are extensively studied before they are put on the shelf, freely available to the general public. In fact, many of these chemicals have been used for decades without any consideration for their potential toxic effects.
There is no doubt that the products used in many everyday sunscreens are toxic the only real question is what effect do they have on you and your family. The exposure to these chemicals does affect you at a cellular level, there is no doubt. It may be insignificant or it may actually be contributing to the problem you are trying to avoid. No one can tell you the answer and in most cases even if something significant does occur they won't be able to tell you definitively if it was the sun or the sunscreen.
There is no doubt that this exposure added to the hundreds of other chemicals we are exposed to every day is a growing cause for concern. Many companies have already started removing some of the chemicals of concern. But the process is slow often too slow and it lags behind the science.
For those that tell you there is no risk, ask them a couple of simple questions. First, ask them if there are any studies showing that some of the ingredients in sunscreens have toxic properties? Second, do they know the combined effect of all the ingredients that are used in sunscreens? Third, can they give a guarantee that it will not affect you and your family? And fourth, If there was a safer brand on the market would they use it for themselves and their family?
But aren’t the authorities there to protect us? To a degree only. Rarely do any of the authorities review old chemicals that have been around for decades. They are already overburdened and don’t have enough resources to do the new chemicals and products coming onto the market each year. For example, they are struggling to keep up with the growing field of chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body and have no real idea about current exposure patterns of Australians to the various sunscreen chemicals, none at all. But it is a lot worse than that, so how can they say there is no problem.
In addition, every one of the regulatory authorities also has a strong vested interest in allowing chemicals to be used. The employees in the authorities regularly go between industry and government. This is looked upon as being positive, as it is experience. Where else can they go so why upset your future bosses. Perhaps the best example of this at the highest level was a prominent NSW premier who delayed all the tobacco smoke control legislation while he was in power only to pick up a lucrative directorship from the tobacco companies when he retired. The internal politics confounds any attempt to regulate these products correctly. Companies and governments also have strong ties through very powerful lobby groups. Just ask any ex politician and they will tell you how powerful the companies are. But then they say that’s politics and it has nothing to do with regulatory authorities. How naive do you think we are. The boards and rules that govern these organizations are set by the government in power.
As a researcher who has worked in environmental toxicology for over 30 years and someone who has been a part of the regulatory regime, I have little faith in the regulatory systems in Australia.
Then there is the complex field of toxicology. It has taken 50 years to get any significant regulation on tobacco smoke in Australia and those companies still argue there is no definitive proof. Of course, there is not, even with the thousands of studies there is still no definitive proof. Science and toxicology do not work like this so imagine trying to remove some chemicals you find in sunscreens that have only 10 or 20 negative studies and a strong and influential chemical industry behind them and are mixed in with so many other chemicals. Even some of the cancer organisations claim there is no definitive studies to show these chemicals can be contributing to the cancers or other health problems. That is true as it is almost impossible to come up with definitive studies. The same organizations ignore the fact that there are no definitive studies linking the use of sunscreens and a reduction of melanoma or basal cell carcinoma in humans or even ignore the studies that have shown an a higher rate of melanoma among men who regularly use sunscreens and higher rate of basal cell carcinoma in woman who use sunscreens. It seems they have a license to use science only when it serves their purpose
But, they have already started getting rid of some of the toxic ingredients in their products and still want to get rid of more of them. Unfortunately, this is behind the scenes and not in the open. This all revolves around money for their organization as the use of these toxic chemicals is cheaper so they can produce a cheaper (more toxic) sunscreen that they sell. So we are now relying on organizations that sell a product for independent advice!
My aim is not to drive people out into the midday sun without protection my aim is to get people to rethink their behaviour and the products they use.
My simple rules are:
1. We all require some sun exposure every day for the production of vitamin D so we should be out in the sun for a brief period, depending on our skin type in the early or late hours of the day. A little bit of sun is essential for good health.
2. We should cover up in preference to using sunscreens by finding shade, using hats and wearing long sleeve sunshirts.
3. We should use the safest sunscreens with the least toxic ingredients. It is not just good science but also common sense and logic to go for safer ingredients and a safer product if it is available.