June 8, 2010
Sunscreen: That miracle product that makes it possible to play in Arizona's blazing sun. But inside almost every bottle made in the USA is a chemical so controversial, some doctors say it's more dangerous than the sun itself. The chemical is oxybenzone. Check out the labels. It's practically everywhere.
Dr. Kenneth Proefrock, who once worked as a sunscreen chemist, says it can change the way hormones work in our bodies.
"That could mean something as relatively benign and not life threatening as fertility issues, and then something as potentially life threatening as hormone sensitive cancers, like breast, prostate, ovarian cancers," Proefrock said.
Sunscreen causing cancer? Proefrock points out the sunscreen itself isn't toxic until it's exposed to sunlight. That's right-- sun can activate the potential danger.
"Those agents that give you the highest SPF rating are the ones that are most likely to break down in the presence of sunlight," Proefrock said.
"I, personally, am not intimidated by oxybenzone," said Dr. Ruskin Lines, a dermatologist.
Lines is not convinced oxybenzone is a problem, except that it blocks out only ultraviolet-B radiation. Ultraviolet-A rays can still get through and those are the rays linked to melanoma, the most dangerous skin cancer.
Still, Lines says it's better than nothing.
"I like sunscreen, and I apply it to myself and I apply it to my children... I don't believe there's any sunscreen active ingredient that doesn't have some form of controversy," he said. "I'm not convinced that there's evidence enough to be concerned with it as a health risk."
The FDA hasn't revisited the safety of oxybenzone since the 1970s, even though a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control concluded that 97 percent of Americans have absorbed the chemical into their bodies.
"The CDC report in 2008 was frankly shocking and now the FDA is having to look at it, because it's so ubiquitous in people," Proefrock said. "This is something that gets into the tissues, into the body, and doesn't get out very easily."
In Europe sunscreens with oxybenzone must carry a warning label on the bottle.
But the chemistry that makes oxybenzone so slippery and popular as a lotion also makes it almost impossible to avoid. You basically "share" sunscreen every time you dive into a pool with other swimmers.
"They rise to the surface and glide along the top of that water, so everybody swimming in that water now gets exposure as you jump in, jump out, through your nose, your eyes, your mouth."
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