In 2009, I sat next to a Federal Reserve employee on a Paris-Washington flight, who, when he found out that I was working in the field of cosmetics, proceeded to tell me that he would never use sunscreens again. Surprised, I asked why. The man had very white skin and my memories of Washington are not those of a city lacking sun. With a latitude of 38o53’, DC is actually much closer to Algiers (36o45’) than it is to Paris (48o52’).
I couldn’t see why someone that white would want to put themselves at risk even when working in their yard.
“Vitamin D deficiency," he replied. "I was diagnosed with a severe deficiency last year, put on heavy supplements and told I needed to get in the sun more. I am not about to put sunscreen on again, it took them months to figure it out and I was a mess.”
I explored the issue a little further, and was indeed appalled by what I found: the numbers vary, but there is a general consensus that there is a deficiency problem.
There are people disputing the results, with disagreements on the levels considered actual deficiency and due to the fact that the measuring methods have changed in the last 30 years, but, in fact, these deficiencies are indeed due to a lack of sun.
Yet, the media impact is here and there is definitely a public health problem; the most conservative estimates are that 10% of the population are deficient, but there is a general consensus that a 40-50% number would probably be accurate.1,2 There is no doubt, however, that supplementation of vitamin D is also a concern. But despite repeated government campaigns aimed at nutrition, the situation isn’t changing.
Despite years of public health campaigns to warn the public about the dangerous effects of the sun, widespread industry efforts to improve the quality (efficacy and acceptability, mainly) of sunscreen products, an increasing awareness of ozone layer depletion problems, and constant publications on the relationship between sun exposure and skin aging, a large fringe of the population isn’t getting adequate sun protection. The ever increasing skin cancer rate is a testament to this. More than 1 million non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed each year. In 1930, 1 in 5,000 Americans was likely to develop melanoma during their lifetime. By 2004, that rate had jumped to 1 in 65. Melanoma is the second most common cancer amongst women age 20-29.3
And the numbers are not improving because a large part of the population is still not using enough sunscreen.4
Choosing between vitamin D deficiency and skin cancer seems to have divided populations into two distinct categories, which complicates the issues a great deal in terms of communication and solutions. When it comes to sun care, however, other problems besides skin cancer and vitamin D deficiency have arisen that may very well mean trouble for the sun care brand owners if they don’t pay very close attention to the health and environmental impacts of existing sunscreens.
Health and Environmental Impact of Existing Sunscreens
It is now well recognized that everything that we put on our skin will wash off somewhere. If it doesn’t, then we have to be concerned with the consequences of the absorption of these compounds. With organic sunscreens, we hit a double jeopardy: not only do the compounds wash off and make their way in different waterways and bodies of water, but some of them are found in the blood stream at levels high enough to cause concern.
There has been an increasing number of studies blaming organic sunscreen for the destruction of coral reefs and other marine species via the activation of otherwise dormant viruses.5,6 In additon, suncreens have been found in different bodies of water and deemed responsible for a number of sexual malformations in fish.7,8 This information has spread into public conscious, and could influence consumer decisions when purchasing sunscreen.
Also, some organic sunscreens absorb into the blood (up to 9% of oxybenzone), some are endocrine disruptors and some do bioaccumulate.These are scientific facts, fairly well documented for ingredients such as oxybenzone and octylmethoxycinnamate. Though not all sunscreens are responsible for such effects (even less in Europe, where a large array of ingredients are available as compared to the limited choices in the U.S.), those facts that are have, again, spread into public conscious.
And this information has not solely been spread by NGOs and consumer watch groups. Studies by well respected health institutions such as the CDC also contribute to decreasing public confidence in sunscreens’ safety.9
Mineral Sunscreens – Health Impact of Micronized TiO2 and ZnO
There are no stability or transdermal penetration concerns with inorganic sunscreens. Their main perceived drawback is the difficulty to formulate them in transparent products. However, TiO2 and ZnO microparticles are photoactive. When exposed to UV radiation those particles lose energy by generating free radicals, which in turn can attack the organic sunscreens. Therefore, inorganic compounds might actually potentialize the toxicity of other sunscreens.10
This fact is not as well known nor well communicated in the general media. However, it is important to take it into account and monitor the media carefully for its eventual appearance in news headlines. As of now, inorganic sunscreens still benefit from a very positive image in the eyes of the public.
Without waiting for public perception to change, we need to fully rethink the way we look at sunscreens formulations, sun exposure and our whole relationship to sun. Social codes regarding sun exposure and the appeal of tanned skin isn’t changing. And the way sunscreens are formulated isn’t changing either. Yet both our habits and products are now at odds with emerging facts such as vitamin D deficiency and new information on sunscreens.
Public opinion is a key driver in the U.S. market. It could be making a difference out of concerns with issues such as vitamin D deficiency and sunscreens’ toxicity and environmental impact.
It is time the industry takes a long hard look at the tools it has to address that potential risk.
Marie Alice Dibon, PharmD, is the principal at Alice Communications, Inc., helping companies in the life science sector to develop innovative technologies.
- Vitamin D deficiency soars in the U.S., study says
- Vitamin D deficiency: the silent epidemic - Michael F. Holick
- Multiple skin cancer risk behaviors in the U.S. population
- Swimmers’ sunscreen killing off coral
- Sunscreens promote coral bleaching by stimulating viruses
- Common sunscreen ingredient “feminizes” male fish
- Chemicals in sunscreen may be harmful to aquatic life
- CDC: Americans Carry “Body Burden” of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical
- Sun protection in man – Paolo Giacomini – p.514