Did you know that not all sunscreen and UPF clothing is created equal when it comes to potentially harmful chemicals? While trying to protect against skin cancer, it is not necessary to expose ourselves (and the environment) to other potential carcinogens or dangers. Use of Physical Sunscreens that sit on top of the skin and reflect UV rays, and UPF apparel, like Sundercover® hat liners made from inherent UPF 50+ material, will protect you without the added risk.
SUNSCREENS- CHEMICAL VS. PHYSICAL
According to a July 2021 article by Lauren Bedosky of Everyday Health which was medically reviewed by Ross Radusky, MD, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates sunscreen products, hasn’t labeled either type of sunscreen unsafe. But as of February 21, 2019, the FDA has proposed a rule to update regulatory requirements for sunscreen products sold in the United States. As part of this proposed rule, the FDA has called for additional safety information on 12 active ingredients commonly found in chemical sunscreens: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
A small randomized clinical trial published in May 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that four of these sunscreen chemicals (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule) are absorbed into the bloodstream at significantly greater levels than 0.5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL). That’s far above the amount at which the FDA requires topical medications to undergo safety studies to determine possible toxic effects.
These results were echoed in a follow-up study published January 2020 in JAMA Journal of the American Medical Association, though this research looked at six sunscreen chemicals (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate).
Although study authors say these results support the need for more research, they also say their findings don’t indicate that sunscreen is unsafe. What’s more, the known health risks of sun exposure far outweigh the potential risk of absorbing sunscreen chemicals. Still, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding chemical sunscreens with oxybenzone because of concerns that this ingredient may disrupt hormones and cause allergic skin reactions.
A review published in January 2019 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that common chemical sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone may bleach and damage coral reefs. For this reason, some tourist destinations, including Hawaii, have banned oxybenzone, as the Center for Biological Diversity notes.
Meanwhile, the ingredients in mineral sunscreens — zinc oxide and titanium oxide — have been generally recognized as safe and effective by the FDA.
UPF CLOTHING- CHEMICALLY TREATED VS. INHERENT UPF
There are many factors that affect the UPF rating of clothing. Most notably, fabric, weave, color and fit determine how effective a clothing item is at protecting you from UV rays. While there are many fabrics that are inherently sun protective, other fabrics can be treated with chemicals to improve their effectiveness at blocking UV rays. Consumers need to beware of the potential chemical exposure if they do not know which type of UPF item they are purchasing.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) on Sun Safety, “the Food and Drug Administration approved the first sun protective clothing in 1992 as a medical device, but today, the Federal Trade Commission regulates these wares by policing marketing claims. Some chemical additives like titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and Tinosorb FD are infused into fabric to improve UV filtering, but we don't advise buying clothes with chemicals…. Don't buy UPF clothing imbedded with chemical sunscreens, and don't add sunscreen chemicals to your wash. You can protect yourself and your family without these chemical additives.”
Per MELIS ANN, mother, environmental scientist & former Covid contact tracer who does research on a variety of health-related topics, in her AUG 15, 2022 article for YOUMEMINDBODY, “it's difficult to discern exactly what chemicals are being added to fabrics to create UV-protective clothing. Optical brighteners (also known as brightening agents), optical whiteners, or fluorescent bleaches are a few types of chemicals used to make swim shirts. The EPA states that optical brighteners are potentially toxic to humans since they are suspected of causing adverse reproductive and developmental effects.
Optical brighteners are a type of dye that absorbs UV light and reflects back blue visible light, which tricks the eye into making colors seem brighter. Note that this ingredient is also present in many laundry detergents to make whites seem whiter and brights seem brighter without actually making them cleaner.
Just as optical brighteners bind to fabric, they also bind to skin, which can't be good for the skin. Couple this with the fact that when optical brighteners break down after being exposed to sunlight, a phototoxic skin irritation or a photoallergy can develop. Many sensitivities that are blamed on dyes or fragrances may actually be due to optical brighteners. In addition, long-term safety testing has not been performed.
Environmentally, optical brighteners are not friendly. They are toxic to fish, algae, and other plants. They can bioaccumulate in larger fish and are not readily biodegradable. Optical brighteners have even been shown to cause mutations in bacteria. Pollution caused by optical brighteners through laundry and treatment of UV-protective clothing is detrimental to water quality and water habitats.”
Performance fabrics that offer anti-bacterial and anti-odor qualities, as well as sun protection, may contain nanoparticles that are largely untested for human health effects. Learn more in this article from Green America Magazine- Detox Your Closet Issue, Fall 2015, by Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist, Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, and André Floyd
Nanotechnology: Tried but Untested
Nanotechnology involves the use of very small particles, called nanoparticles, to bring certain characteristics to a product. Nanoparticles are defined as being between the range of 1-100 nanometers in size. A billion of them can fit on the head of a pin. Nanomaterials are currently used in body care products, as well as consumer products like cutting boards, towels, food, and, yes, clothes. The most common nanomaterials in clothing are nanosilver and nano-titanium dioxide. Nanosilver is woven into fabric to give it anti-bacterial properties, fending off the bacteria that make those clothes smell after you sweat. Nano-titanium dioxide adds sun protection to clothing just as it does in sunscreen. Use of nanoparticles to achieve fresh-smelling clothes & UV protection may not be safe. “Concerns from the human health perspective are that these different-shaped/-sized particles may behave differently within the biological systems of our bodies,” says Dave Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental research nonprofit. “Different sizes may be more likely to be transported … through skin and through organs, or cause toxicity effects in body.” Take carbon. In its normal form, it’s a building block of life and nontoxic to humans and the environment. But since 2003, several studies, including one from 2008 conducted by the University of Edinburgh, found that carbon nanotubes—one-billionth of an atom wide—reacted in the lungs of mice in a similar manner to asbestos, which causes the deadly lung cancer mesothelioma. But because of the ways in which products and ingredients are regulated in the US, manufacturers have not been required to demonstrate the safety of nanomaterials prior to using them in consumer products. “Our [regulatory] system does not consider nano-versions to be different materials.”
Sunscreen in Your Shirt
It is common to find nanoparticles of titanium dioxide in sunscreens, and you can now find them in the fabric of certain types of clothing, giving them a higher ultraviolet protection factor. Studies out of Europe, including one by von Goetz, that replicated the wear and tear a garment containing nano-titanium dioxide would go through during a workout found that the nanoparticles “barely released from fibers into sweat,”says von Goetz. That said, if your skin absorbs even a little nano-titanium oxide, it may lead to health issues. The American Cancer Society’s Dr. Kenneth Portier published a fact-sheet online that warns, “Recent research has shown that [nano-titanium dioxide particles], when injected in low dose under the skin of mice, produce a significant, but reversible, inflammatory response. This could be a concern given what we are learning about the negative health effects of chronic inflammation.” The EWG says that the potential effects of nano-titanium dioxide on the environment “have not been sufficiently assessed.”
As the information shared here indicates, there are many unknowns about the effects of some chemicals used in sunscreens and clothing. However, several studies indicate that harmful effects to our bodies and our environment can result from the use of these chemicals. Better to stay safe and look for options that do not use the chemicals in question when choosing your sun protective products. Lucky for us, safer options are available!