What’s in Your Sunscreen?

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West Michigan is a frigid lackluster tundra for nearly half the year. So, it makes sense that we want to spend most of the summer soaking up the sun—just not sunburn, or the risk of developing skin cancer.

"Apply and reapply sunscreen," the professionals tell us, "and you won't have anything to worry about."

But it's a bit more complicated than that.

While ingredients in sunscreen shouldn't be harmful to lungs or internal organs, that's not always the case.

In order to withstand powerful UV radiation, sunscreens pack active ingredients—in the form of mineral or chemical filters—that could potentially harm the body. Many sunscreen chemicals are absorbed into the body. People can potentially inhale ingredients in sunscreen sprays, or ingest some of the ingredients when applying products to their lips. Sunscreens also commonly include ingredients that act as "penetration enhancers" to help products adhere to the skin. These chemicals can be measured in blood, breast milk and urine samples.

Brandi Grimmer, nutritional consultant at Keystone Pharmacy, notes there are a few ingredients in sunscreens to avoid:

1. Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in sunscreens. The Environment Working Group (EWG) rates it as a level 8 hazard in its table outlining human exposure and toxicity information for nine FDA-approved sunscreen chemicals. Grimmer notes oxybenzone acts as an endocrine disruptor and is one of the main contributors to endometriosis in females and lowered sperm count in males.

"We are counseled to avoid xenoestrogens by drinking out of glass bottles and cups when possible, avoiding certain plastics and not microwaving in plastic containers," Grimmer said. "To then apply one directly to the skin is not a good strategy."

2. Oxtinoxate scores a 6 on EWG's hazard scale. Grimmer notes that, while not as toxic as oxybenzone, it has estrogen-like activity, and is excreted in breast milk.

3. "Vitamin A or retinyl palmitate is often added to night creams for its anti-aging effects on the skin," Grimmer said. Retinyl palmitate is listed as an "inactive ingredient" in some sunscreens, but Grimmer notes that it may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin.

4. No matter the ingredients, avoid spray sunscreens. "Sprays make it too easy to apply too little or miss spots, and also pose serious inhalation risks," Grimmer said.

EWG notes that the most common sunscreens on the market contain chemical filters such as the ones Grimmer advises against, but don't worry: There are safe sunscreens.

It's still important to apply and reapply sunscreen when spending time outdoors, and there are products that provide UVA and UVB protection without the toxic effects. Grimmer notes the safest options are sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, but if you need a bit more guidance, you could always stop in at Keystone Pharmacy. Their shelves are stocked with safe options, and the staff is happy to help.

Enjoy the sun, but avoid toxic ingredients at all costs. It's worth your health.

Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.

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