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Shocking, but true: Sunscreen the biohazard

The sun is fun, especially when it shines in Southeast, Alaska. But recent findings are showing that sunscreen may be a cause of skin cancer and not protect us in the ways we'd hoped. The best bet is to cover up with a good sun hat and use a little common sense.   Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire
Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire
The sun is fun, especially when it shines in Southeast, Alaska. But recent findings are showing that sunscreen may be a cause of skin cancer and not protect us in the ways we'd hoped. The best bet is to cover up with a good sun hat and use a little common sense.

When the sun comes out in Juneau, there’s reason to celebrate.

Rain boots are replaced with flip-flops. GorTex is swapped for cotton. And skin, which is regularly covered by long sleeves, slacks and scarves, is exposed in all its pasty pale perfection.

(At least, that’s how it is if you’re fair-skinned and Scotch-Irish, like myself.)

It’s not until a day or so later, that the regret sets in.

Pasty pale is replaced by tender pink. And while the rains return, the sun’s heat lingers in the form of a pesky sunburn.

For years, the cure has been simple: sunscreen — and lots of it.

But after reading a recent report by author and professor Elizabeth Plourde, titled “Exposing the Hazards of Sunscreen,” I think I’ll pass on the zinc oxide — and the rest of the chemicals suncreens harbor.

Instead, I’ll apply a little common sense.

You see, our skin contains natural antioxidants that protect our sensitive cellular structure from the sun’s radiation. “Prior to the advent of suncreens, the threat of sunburn would get us out of the sun before we depleted the antioxidant supplies in our skin,” Plourde wrote.

Today, sunscreens tout protection from many types of harmful sun rays (UVB and UVA, for example). Manufacturers have kept adding chemical, after chemical to support these claims.

For the most part, suncreens work. And in some instances, these lotions are a good choice.

But did you know, that some of the chemicals and metals used to filter the UV rays actually break down when exposed to sunlight? This renders them useless.

Plourde further examined what happens when these chemicals are mixed:

“Combining (these chemicals) to cover a broader portion of the UV spectrum causes some of them to break down ever more rapidly than when they are used individually.”

 “Another problem,” she wrote, “is that even when individual chemicals do not show measurable toxic effects, they may exhibit much greater toxicity when they are combined.”

Researchers are now recommending, she said, that future studies examine the effects these chemicals have on our skin and our environment.

There’s reason for concern. Research is beginning to uncover that chemicals used in suncreens directly kill coral and that they are “hazardous to all species of life, including humans.” Plourde said they are especially damaging to the developing brains of young children and fetuses.

After digging deeper into published research studies, Plourde discovered that not only did suncreens not provide the promised results, but they also contain damaging nanoparticles that can cross cell walls to degrade and mutate DNA.

It’s these nanoparticles that are especially harmful to young children, she said. It’s the tiny titanium dioxide and zinc oxide metals, which are very often found in sunscreens, that “cross cell membranes as well as pass into the nucleai of cells, where they cause damage to the DNA and disrupt normal cell division."

In other words, they can cause cancer. And if you put them on your skin, the risk is very real.

When I read this, my jaw dropped; the very lotions that tout protection from skin cancer, can also cause it.

A study published in 2011, 12 years after the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of metal oxide nanoparticle use in sunscreens, found that the “long term risks of titanium dioxide nanoparticles are currently unknown.” A later study found that zinc oxide nanoparticles are lethal to phytoplankton — one of the most important forms of food on the planet.

This is just the beginning to the findings shared by Plourde.

Other chemicals in suncreens act as hormone disruptors, she wrote. A study in 2008 identified benzophenone-3 (BP3), octyl methoxycinnamate (OMCO), 4-methylebenzylidene camphor (4-MBC) and butyl paraben (BP) (a preservative) as the cause of rapid coral death. The study, Plourde said, found that, even at low concentrations, these chemicals kill coral in 96 hours by promoting viral infections.

Furthermore, Plourde stated that the offspring of fish exposed to sunscreen chemicals exhibit combinations of male and female sexual development. Scientists have termed these “intersex” fish and some stop spawning.

It’s not just in fish, Plourde said.

The chemicals from suncreens are showing up in our water systems and environment. Some research, conducted on mice and rats, showed that when animals are exposed to these chemicals they exhibit general toxicity in their thyroid and reproductive systems.

If it can affect certain animals that way, then what is happening to the sensitive bodily systems of humans, both young and old?

Plourde found one study that revealed the presence of suncreen chemicals in household dust. This means they are entering our bloodstream through our lungs.

But perhaps the most shocking, especially for a mother who is breastfeeding a baby, is that the same chemicals found in suncreen have also been found in “85 percent of nursing mothers’ milk samples, which means our babies are drinking them.”

I could go on — and on. But I’ll end it here.

Plourde cited all her claims with three pages of references. It’s fair to say she’s done her homework.

I’ll pass on the sunscreen the next time Mother Nature brings the sun. Instead, I’ll use a little common sense and a good sun hat. Plus, I’m sure I could use the vitamin D.

 

• For more information on this topic, please feel free to email me at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com. Abby Lowell is editor of the Juneau Empire Outdoors section. 

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