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Is Your Sunscreen Toxic?

Recent studies show that 97% of Americans are contaminated with
a widely-used sunscreen ingredient called Oxybenzone

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A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that 97% of Americans are contaminated with a common sunscreen ingredient called oxybenzone. This toxic chemical has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage, as well as low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy. Oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3) is also a penetration enhancer, a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin. Although oxybenzone is most common in sunscreen, manufacturers also use the chemical in at least 567 other personal care products.

Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization, identified nearly 600 sunscreens sold in the U.S. that contain oxybenzone, including products by Hawaiian Tropic, Coppertone, and Banana Boat, as well as 172 facial moisturizers, 111 lip balms, and 81 different types of lipstick. (For a complete list of products containing this chemical go to www.ewg.org)

The FDA has failed miserably in its duty to protect the public from toxic chemicals like oxybenzone in personal care products. At the request of industry lobbyists, the agency has delayed final sunscreen safety standards for nearly 30 years. Under pressure from EWG, the FDA issued a new draft of the standards in October 2007, but continues to delay finalizing them at the behest of the industry.

EWG research shows that 84% of 588 name-brand sunscreen products offer inadequate protection from the sun, or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns like oxybenzone. The last safety review for oxybenzone was done in the 1970s, and does not reflect a wealth of information developed since that time, indicating increased toxicity concerns. The FDA needs to review the safety of oxybenzone and to finalize its sunscreen safety standards so that consumers can be certain that sunscreen products they purchase are safe and effective.

Top scientists from the CDC published results in March 2008 from a national survey of 2,500 Americans, age 6 and up, showing that oxybenzone readily absorbs into the body and is present in 97% of Americans tested. Typically, women and girls have higher levels of oxybenzone in their bodies than men and boys, likely a result of differences in use of bodycare products including sunscreens.

In another recent study, it was found that mothers with high levels of oxybenzone in their bodies were more likely to give birth to underweight baby girls. Low birth weight is a critical risk factor linked to coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases in adulthood.

Among the common sunscreen chemicals, oxybenzone is most likely to be associated with allergic reactions triggered by sun exposure. In a study of 82 patients with photoallergic contact dermatitis, over one quarter showed photoallergic reactions to oxybenzone; another study reported one in five allergic reactions to photopatch tests resulted from exposure to oxybenzone. Sunlight also causes oxybenzone to form free radical chemicals that may be linked to cell damage.

Studies on human volunteers indicate a wide variation in the level of oxybenzone absorbed into the body, with some individuals absorbing at least 9% of the applied dose, as measured in excretions in urine. Volunteers continued to excrete oxybenzone many days after the last application of the chemical, an indication of its tendency to accumulate in fatty tissues in the body. In addition to its ability to absorb into the body, oxybenzone is also a penetration enhancer, a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin.

Studies on cells and laboratory animals indicate that oxybenzone and its metabolites--the chemicals the body makes from oxybenzone in an attempt to detoxify and excrete it--may disrupt the hormone system. Under study conditions, oxybenzone and its metabolites cause weak estrogenic and anti-androgenic effects. Oxybenzone displays additive hormonal effects when tested with other sunscreen chemicals. Laboratory study also suggests that oxybenzone may affect the adrenal hormone system.

One human study coapplying three sunscreen active ingredients (oxybenzone, 4-MBC, and octinoxate) suggested a minor, intermittent, but statistically significant drop in testosterone levels in men during a one-week application period. Researchers also detected statistically significant declines in estradiol levels in men; other hormonal differences detected could not be linked to sunscreen use due to differences in baseline hormone levels before and during treatment. Outdated health protections do not take into account these and other adverse effects.

A 2006 European Union review concluded that a rigorous exposure assessment of oxybenzone was impossible, due to lack of information about the levels of absorption into the body. However, the levels of contamination reported in the latest CDC study indicate that absorption may be significant, consistent with previous, small-scale biomonitoring reports. A decades-old evaluation by FDA, as well as more recent review by the cosmetics industry's own safety panel, do not consider concerns regarding hormone disruption, nor the implications of the ability of oxybenzone to penetrate the skin. At present, no health-based standards exist for safe levels of oxybenzone in the body.

Additional cautions must be employed when considering the effects of oxybenzone on children. The surface area of a child's skin relative to body weight is greater than adults. As a result, the potential dose of a chemical following dermal exposure is likely to be about 1.4 times greater in children than in adults. In addition, children are less able than adults to detoxify and excrete chemicals, and children's developing organ systems are more vulnerable to damage from chemical exposures, and more sensitive to low levels of hormonally active compounds. Children also have more years of future life in which to develop disease triggered by early exposure to chemicals. Despite these well-documented concerns regarding children's sensitivity to harmful substances, no special protections exist regarding ingredients in personal care products marketed for babies and children.

The fraction of oxybenzone that is not absorbed into the human body often contaminates water, washed from the skin during swimming and water play or while bathing. Wastewater treatment removes only a fraction of this sunscreen chemical, resulting in detection of oxybenzone in treated wastewater, in lake and sea waters due to recreational use or to discharges from water treatment facilities, and even in fish. Studies show oxybenzone can trigger outbreaks of viral infection in coral reefs and can cause feminization of male fish. Despite significant ecological concerns, there are no measures in place to protect sensitive ecosystems from damage caused by this contaminant.

The FDA last reviewed the safety of oxybenzone in the 1970s, republishing its evaluation in 1978, at the same time it announced plans to develop comprehensive standards for sunscreen safety and effectiveness. Thirty years later, the agency has yet to issue final regulations. Instead, it encourages manufacturers to follow draft guidelines that the agency has delayed finalizing at the behest of the sunscreen industry. As a result, sunscreen manufacturers in the U.S. are free to market products containing ingredients like oxybenzone that have not been proven safe for people.

Found in over half of the 910 name-brand sunscreen products EWG reviewed, oxybenzone is tied to significant health concerns that must be scrutinized. Instead, the FDA's refusal to re-examine this ingredient keeps sunscreens containing oxybenzone on the market. Petitions for review of newly developed sunscreen ingredients approved for use in other countries, and with far fewer health concerns, have been met with similar inattention, blocking Americans' access to better products.

FDA foot-dragging has left the U.S. without enforceable standards for sunscreen safety and effectiveness for decades. The FDA needs to finalize the latest version of its monograph on sunscreen products immediately, and launch an investigation into the safety of the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone.

If you are looking for natural sunscreen, try Soleo Organics, a new sunscreen from Australia that's free of oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, and other chemicals and synthetic preservatives. Available at your local natural foods store or visit www.soleousa.com.

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