Dear EarthTalk: Isn’t spray sunscreen a health and environmental nightmare when it seems that more of the sunscreen ends up going up my nose than on the kid at the beach next to me?
— Lillian Robertson, Methuen, MA
Spray cans of sunscreen may no longer contain chlorofluorocarbons (also known as CFCs, which were phased out in the 1990s for causing holes in the stratospheric ozone layer), but many contain other chemicals that are no good for our health or the environment. Researchers have found that the chemicals and/or minerals in the vast majority of commercially available sunscreens—even the rub-in creamy or oily varieties — can cause health problems just from ordinary use; inhaling them only magnifies the risks.
And just what are the risks? According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), there are two major types of sunscreens available in the U.S. “Chemical” sunscreens, the more common kind, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body’s endocrine system, as their active ingredients (e.g., octylmethylcinnamate, oxybenzone, avobenzone, benzophone, mexoryl, PABA or PARSOL 1789) mimic the body’s natural hormones and as such can essentially confuse the body’s systems. Quite a risk to take, considering that the chemical varieties don’t even work for very long once applied.
Meanwhile, “mineral” sunscreens are considered somewhat safer, as their active ingredients are natural elements such as zinc or titanium. But “micronized” or “nano-scale” particles of these minerals can get below the skin surface and cause allergic reactions and other problems for some people. EWG recommends sticking with “mineral” sunscreens whenever possible but, more important, taking other precautions to avoid prolonged sun exposure altogether. “At EWG we use sunscreens, but we look for shade, wear protective clothing, and avoid the noontime sun before we smear on the cream,” the group reports.
As for spray varieties, EWG recommends avoiding them entirely: “These ingredients are not meant to be inhaled into the lungs.” With so little known about the effects of sunscreen chemicals on the body when rubbed into the skin, we may never know how much worse the effects may be when they are inhaled. But suffice it to say: When your neighbor at the beach is spraying down Junior, it’s in your best interest to turn away and cover your nose and mouth.
The root of the problem, according to EWG, is failure on the part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), despite repeated requests from public health and consumer advocates, to implement sunscreen safety standards, some of which were proposed by government scientists more than three decades ago.
EWG only considers a small percentage of the sunscreens on the market—none of which come packaged in spray cans—safe for human use. Some of the top rated varieties come from manufacturers including All Terrain, Aubrey Organics, Badger, Blue Lizard, California Baby, La Roche-Posay, Purple Prairie Botanicals, thinksport, and UV Natural. None of the mainstream drug store variety brands appear on EWG’s recommended list. The full list is available on the sunscreens section of EWG’s Skin Deep website. With summer now upon us, stock up on good sunscreen before it’s too late.