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Caution: Your Sunscreen May Have a Harmful Chemical Composition

written by: ciel s cantoria•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 5/17/2010

Do you harbor doubts about the chemical composition of your sunscreen? Learning about the true chemical composition of your sunscreen will not take away the need to protect your skin from direct sunlight. What you need to do instead, is to take certain sunscreen precautions.

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    Chemical Compositions of Sunscreens

    Baby-Sunscreen lotion 

    Sunscreens are described by researchers as “chemical cocktails" due to the numerous chemical ingredients used not only to serve as barriers between the harmful UVA and UVB but also to keep and make the substances adhere to our skin. Chemicals are also added to preserve the shelf-life of the product. Included among these chemicals is the substance known as triethanolamine and has been identified as active in promoting the release of free radicals in our body once the UV Radiations A and B saturate our skin.

    Triethanolamine is a chemical formulation also allowed in cosmetics such as mascara, moisturizers, anti-aging creams, facial cleansers and styling gels just to name a few, but subject to regulations. There are about 4,730 studies in PubMed’s science library that contain information regarding the toxicity of triethanolamine.

    Since there are different kinds of sunscreen formulations available in the market and in order to maintain a fair presentation of ingredients, the chemical compositions below are based on patent applications for sunscreens. Each ingredient stated as part of the chemical composition was cross-referenced against the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Database Search.

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    Organic Sunscreen for UVA/UVB

    This sunscreen formulation aims to provide a cosmetically acceptable vehicle wherein the UVA and the UVB sunscreen ingredients are separated from each other by means of encapsulation.

    • Dibenzoyl methane derivative, such as butylmethoxy dibenzoylmethane-has low to moderate hazard rating starting at SPF 15. Included in list of Ingredients Flagged by EWG's Skin Deep Database for its Link to Cancer.
    • Octyl methoxycinnamate - has low to moderate hazard rating starting at SPF 30
    • Tocopherol acetate - has low hazard rating starting at SPF 30
    • Butyl hydroxyl toluene - has low hazard rating starting at SPF 30
    • Glycerol monostearate - has low hazard rating starting at SPF 30
    • Stearic acid - has low hazard rating starting at SPF 15
    • Cetyl palmitate - has moderate hazard rating in kids' sunscreen starting at SPF greater than 30
    • Niacinamide - has moderate hazard rating in daily moisturizer/ sunscreen starting at SPF greater than 30
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    Clear Waterproof Sunscreen

    This sunscreen was formulated in order to provide protection against erythema as caused by UV Radiation over a prolonged period. Erythema refers to the abnormal skin redness as blood vessels become dilated due to sunburn.

    • Cyclomethicone - has zero to low hazard rating for baby sunscreen starting at SPF 30 +
    • Dimethyl siloxane - has low hazard rating for kids' sunscreen starting at SPF 15
    • Ethanol as Fragrance - has low hazard rating for sunscreen starting at SPF 30 +
    • Escalol as Octinoxate - has moderate hazard rating in babies' and kids' sunscreen starting at SPF greater than 30. Included in list of Ingredients Flagged by EWG's Skin Deep Database for its Link to Cancer.
    • Sunarome - has moderate hazard rating in babies' and adults' sunscreen starting at SPF greater than 30
    • Dermol - No results matched this ingredient at Skin Deep Database, but further research showed that there is a UK antimicrobial emollient and moisturizer lotion that carries the name Dermol 500. Dermol products are not widely known among consumers since they were developed as prescription treatment for various disorders including dry skin conditions.
    • Ganex V - Initially, this product showed negative results in Skin Deep’s Database, but further research revealed that Ganex V is a known copolymer of vinylpyrrolidone. It is used as a binder emulsifier in sunscreens. It disclosed a moderate hazard rating as a sunscreen ingredient starting at SPF 30. Included in list of Ingredients Flagged by EWG's Skin Deep Database for its Link to Cancer.

    Please proceed to the next page for the chemical composition of Nano Particle Hybrid Sunscreens.

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    Here we will examine more sunscreen chemical compositions such as those found in the nano particle hybrid. You will also find revealing information about some of their links to cancer. Provided will be additional precautionary suggestions when using sunscreen and how to protect your skin from the sun.
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    Nano Particle Hybrid Sunscreens

    This type of sunscreen was formulated in such a way that its consistency is free from rough particles that damage skin tissues. The following are the ingredients included in its patent application:

    • Nano Titanium Dioxide - has low hazard rating as sunscreen ingredient in SPF starting at 30. Included in list of Ingredients Flagged by EWG's Skin Deep Database for its Link to Cancer.
    • Nano Zinc Dioxide - has low hazard rating as sunscreen ingredient in SPF starting at 30. Included in list of Ingredients Flagged by EWG's Skin Deep Database for its Link to Cancer.
    • Triethoxysilyl - Confirmed as a sunscreen ingredient but there are concerns about the absence of toxicity studies.
    • Zeolite - Also used as ingredient for foundation make-up with sunscreen and has moderate hazard rating. Included in list of Ingredients Flagged by EWG's Skin Deep Database for its Link to Cancer.
    • Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate - has moderate hazard rating as ingredient for babies' and adults' sunscreen starting at SPF 30. Included in list of Ingredients Flagged by EWG's Skin Deep Database for its Link to Cancer.
    • Silica - has low hazard rating as kids' sunscreen ingredient with SPF starting at 15. Included in list of Ingredients Flagged by EWG's Skin Deep Database for its Link to Cancer.
    • Amphiphilic poly(organosiloxane) - there is no data available for this ingredient.
    • Trialkoxysilanes - there is no data available for this ingredient.
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    Ingredients Flagged by EWG's Skin Deep Database for its Link to Cancer

    • Dibenzoyl methane as a derivative of Avobenzone (Parsol 1789)/ butylmethoxy dibenzoylmethane as a sunscreen composition. Avobenzone (Parsol 1789)/ butylmethoxy dibenzoylmethane are chemical formulations that are linked to cancer.
    • Escalol - Based on information provided by the Skin Deep Database, the ingredient escalol matches other chemical compositions also using sunscreen ingredient. Escalol as Octinoxate, Escalol with Reference to Oxybenzone or Benxonphenone-3 and Escalol as Padimate O (Octyl Dimethyl PABA | PABA Ester).
    • Parsol MCX - matches the database formula known as Avobenzone (Parsol 1789)/ Butyl Methoxydibenoylmethane.
    • Ganex V - further research showed that this ingredient is a known copolymer of PVP or Vinylpyrrolidone which matches Skin Deep’s data for sunscreen ingredient.
    • Nano Titanium Dioxide - database information about this substance revealed different opinions about its carcinogenicity.
    • Nano Zinc Dioxide - database information about this substance revealed different opinions about its carcinogenicity, but it appears that there are more concerns about its toxic hazards in the workplace.
    • Zeolite - There is moderate evidence of this ingredient’s link to respiratory cancer based on CHE Toxicant and Disease Database. Safety assessments were made by the Cosmetic Ingredients Review based on the chemical.
    • Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate - This is another chemical formula that matches the same formulation of Avobenzone (Parsol 1789)/ Butyl Methoxydibenoylmethane and Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate). Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate) is not linked to cancer but there is concern for its link to reproductive toxicity and ability to cause endocrine disruption.
    • Silica - measure of this element’s toxicity was based on inhalation scores as ingredient to cosmetics in relation to the industry’s workplace. However, there is still concern for cancer and its tendencies to cause allergic reactions and immunotoxicity through skin absorption.

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    FDA Regulations for Commercially Viable Sunscreen Products

    Under FDA regulations, the term 'sunscreen' includes any product for sun protection and that states that sunscreen products are subject to labeling requirements and regulations as drugs. The FDA allows the use of the sunscreen ingredients in other products for non-therapeutic or non-physical use. However, information about this should be specifically indicated in the labels in order to qualify the products as non-therapeutic items. Otherwise, the products will fall under the drug classification. In addition, ingredients should adhere to the regulations prescribed by the FDA as Ingredients Prohibited and Restricted.

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    Recommended Sunscreen Precautions

    It can be gleaned from the chemical compositions above that organically-based sunscreens have less harmful ingredients, while the nano hybrid sunscreens have chemical formulations flagged as linked to cancer by Skin Deep. There are many more chemical compositions considered as hazardous substances to both environment and human health. Based on this, the following practical sunscreen precautions are recommended:

    • Use the organic types of sunscreens, however, it is still recommended that their chemical compositions be checked against EWG's Skin Deep Database to determine their hazard rating and potential harmful effects as well as efficiency against UVA and UVB.
    • If you need to spend time under the sun, make it a point to use other protective forms of clothing or accessories to lessen the frequency of applying sunscreen lotions.
    • Keep children, particularly babies, protected from the sun’s harmful rays and do not rely on commercial sunscreens for their skin protection. Children are known to put objects which may include their hands, arms and even their clothes, next to their mouths.

    Reference Materials:

    • http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/SelectedCosmeticIngredients/ucm127406.htm
    • http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/

    Images courtesy of Wikimedia

All About Sunscreen Safety Checks

Using sunscreen is very important but you need to do some safety checks to make sure you're using the right type of safe sunscreen. Checkout this series and learn about sunscreen safety checks and the natural oils you can use as alternatives in sunscreen protection.
  1. Caution: Your Sunscreen May Have a Harmful Chemical Composition
  2. Natural Oils that May Protect from the Sun
  3. Hidden Sunscreen Dangers, Causing Cancer?
  4. About Biodegradable Sunscreens