For the past few years The Environmental Working Group, a health and environmental watch group, has come out with an annual sunscreen report that casts an extremely damning eye on the vast majority of the sunscreens on the market today. Last year the EWG recommended only 39 out of the 500 sunscreens that they reviewed. The group called into question the use of retinyl palmitate (or vitamin A) and oxybenzone in sunscreens saying that retinyl palmitate could actually cause cancerous tumors if exposed to sunlight and that oxybenzone (which is so widely used in sunscreens it is hard to find a readily available commercial sunscreen without it) is an endocrine disruptor. The report also went on to make harsh statements against The Skin Cancer Foundation for putting their seal of approval on sunscreens and the FDA for still not updating its sunscreen regulations, something they said they were going to do back in 1978 (yes, 1978 that isn’t a typo). One more thing the EWG emphasized in their report was the fact that sunscreens’ were promising false security with exaggerated spf ratings. I happen to agree with that last point wholeheartedly. (For more on that issue please see my previous post – Spf 100 is a Joke.)
Last year’s EWG sunscreen report created quite a ruckus and got a lot of media attention. In my opinion it also created a lot of unnecessary stress, worry, and aggravation particularly for parents who wanted to make sure that their children were properly protected from the sun. Perhaps what bothered me the most wasn’t the debate about which sunscreens were best because I actually don’t think all sunscreens are created equal, but the lack of insight and the blind following that many people engaged in after reading (or just hearing) about the EWG report. Instead of investigating the issue for themselves many people, and I knew quite a few personally, didn’t give the EWG’s statements a second thought and instead of doing some of their own investigating they simply became hysterical about buying the “right” sunscreen. (I tried to cover different sides of this debate in my blog last summer is my posts: Sunscreen Woes – The EWG Releases Its Annual Sunscreen Report and The Debate Continues: More on the Sunscreen Controversy) So I was pleased to see the recent article Shedding Light on Sunscreens in MedEsthetics Magazine which addressed many of the issues raised in the EWG report last year.
The article in MedEsthetics addressed the issues brought up by the EWG about retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone. The article explains that the EWG reached their conclusions about retinyl palmitate causing cancerous tumors when exposed to sunlight:
based on initial, unpublished findings from a National Toxicology Program study released in late 2009 by the FDA. The NTP is the federal government’s principal evaluator of substances that raise public health concerns. In the study, lab mice were coated in 0.1% to 0.5% vitamin A cream and then exposed to the equivalent of up to nine minutes of midday Florida sunlight each day for one year. The EWG says that tumors and lesions developed in up to 21% sooner in lab animals coated in the vitamin A cream compared to control animals covered in a vitamin-free cream.
The EWG’s interpretation caught physicians and the industry by surprise. It wasn’t until November 2010 that dermatologists responded in a paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Lead author Steven Q. Wang, MD, from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and colleagues disagreed with the EWG conclusions, saying that the number of malignant neoplasms in the two groups of mice were not significantly different in mice exposed to the higher doses of radiation. They concluded that the evidence did not support calling the combination of retinyl palmitate and UV photocarcinogenic.
The EWG countered with its own online critique of the journal article, saying that it stood by its analysis of the data. As we await a final report from the NTP, industry leaders weighing in on the evidence seem to agree with this statement from Tatiana Kononov, principle scientist at Revision Skin Care: Although I applaud the stated mission of the EWG, the release of its report on sunscreens highlighted some harsh generalizations that I think were made solely for publicity purposes. This specific act by the EWG was unfortunate and irresponsible. I am sure that many future studies will show that retinyl palmitate is perfectly safe and even beneficial in sunscreen products.”
As for oxybenzone, which the EWG labeled an endocrine disruptor, once again most experts disagreed with their findings:
The EWG bases its conclusion on studies in which mice were fed large amounts of oxybenzone. “Oxybenzone has been around for 30 to 40 years, and there is no data showing that topical use is estrogenic in any way,” Dr. Lim says [Dr. Lim is the chairman of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit]. “Since the original mouse studies, several groups have done human studies looking for hormonal effects but found none.”
Oxybenzone is a helpful ingredient because it has some UVA absorption characteristics,” says Kononov. “It is approved for use in sunscreens by many other countries including Japan, Australia and South Korea.
I have to say that I was pleased to read these counter interpretations of the EWG’s conclusions. Though I was initially inclined to think the EWG was on to something when I read their report last year I have since decided that their claims were way overblown. Of course all this makes me wonder – what is the EWG going to say in their 2011 sunscreen report? Only time will tell.