The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released their annual sunscreen scare report to help mislead consumers about how to take care of their skin. On the 24th of May, the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group sent out a press release stating that retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) in sunscreens is linked to skin cancer and tumor growth. Not surprisingly, within hours of the release we received a flurry of emails from concerned consumers. Once again, the EWG has propagated incomplete, ridiculous information under the guise of being consumer watchdogs—and once again lots of consumers are eyeing their sunscreens with the same suspicion they’d normally reserve for an unmarked vat of toxic chemicals.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was implicated in this report, with the basic sentiment being that the risks associated with retinyl palmitate and skin damage was something they were aware of yet failed to warn the public about. Reading the EWG report, you’d think a large percentage of sunscreen-wearing consumers would be stricken with cancer (never mind that sun exposure in and of itself is the most potent carcinogen we’re exposed to on a daily basis) by the very products they’re using in good faith to prevent this disease. In fact, the EWG report points to the increased use of sunscreen as the cause for the increase in current skin cancer cases. This is the very definition of stupidity. The real reason for rising skin cancer rates is the simple fact that today’s skin cancer rates are the result of decades of long-term unprotected sun exposure. Not to mention research shows only 10% of the population even uses sunscreen on a regular basis.

The EWG’s assertions about sunscreen efficacy flies in the face of hundreds of published, peer-reviewed studies from medical and research centers all over the world proving sunscreen can prevent skin cancer as well as wrinkles and skin discolorations.

In terms of vitamin A in sunscreens being a concern, the EWG seems to be completely ignorant of the fact that retinyl palmitate is one of the primary sources of antioxidant protection found naturally in skin (Source: Toxicology and Industrial Health, May 2006, pages 181–191).

The Personal Care Products Council, lead by former FDA chief John Bailey (himself a scientist), was quick to respond to the allegations in the EWG’s report. This group represents the global cosmetic and personal care industry, and is on the leading edge of not only product innovation, but of safety. Here are the highlights you must know:

Sunscreens: General Info

  • The safety and efficacy of sunscreen products have been thoroughly studied and tested by scientists and regulatory authorities throughout the world.
  • There is an extensive body of research supporting the safety and efficacy of commercially-available sunscreen actives—far too much to list here.
  • Daily use of a well-formulated sunscreen rated SPF 15 or greater is recommended not only by the FDA, but by the American Academy of Dermatology, the Skin Cancer Foundation, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
  • Sunscreens in the U.S. are regulated as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs by the FDA and must undergo pre-market approval that involves rigorous scientific assessment including safety and efficacy substantiation according to FDA standards. You will be pleased to know that these standards are among the most rigorous in the world.

The EWG’s Inaccurate Sunscreen Assertions

  • EWG’s statements against sunscreens are in direct conflict with the established scientific and FDA safety assessments of sunscreen products and their ingredients. This includes scientific and regulatory bodies in the European Union, Canada, and several other countries.
  • According to the Personal Care Products Council, the EWG has invented its own method for calculating how much protection a sunscreen provides; however, this system is “based on very questionable scientific methodology” that has “proven to be inaccurate and unreliable by sunscreen experts around the world.”
  • Dermatologist Dr. Zoe Draelos had the following comments about the EWG’s latest report: “I think it’s very sad. A lot of their sunscreen recommendations are based on very old technology, and some of the best sunscreens on the market have newer chemicals that are much more effective. A lot of their opinions are not keeping pace with technology and an understanding of the science of these formulations.”

Vitamin A Isn’t Going to Give You Cancer

Here are the key facts about vitamin A (including the retinyl palmitate form) and sunscreen use that you need to know:

  • Retinyl palmitate is approved by the FDA as a food additive, as an over-the-counter (OTC) drug, and a prescription drug.  To achieve premarket approval, the FDA requires extensive and rigorous testing. This vitamin wouldn’t be widely used if pre-market tests showed it to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing).
  • According to the Personal Care Products Council statement, “In 2000, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) published a notice stating that it would study the potential of retinyl palmitate to enhance UV radiation-induced photocarcinogenisity. While the study is listed as ‘in progress,’ the NTP recently released preliminary data on their Web site; scientific peer review of the entire study is now scheduled for late 2010 or early 2011.  Peer review is essential before the results of a study can be accurately interpreted or used to support conclusions. It must be noted that this NTP study was not designed to study retinyl palmitate in the presence or absence of sunscreen formulations.” Therefore, the EWG reached their conclusion based on preliminary data.
  • A truly credible scientific organization would never evaluate such preliminary data and make recommendations based upon it, especially those that lead to consumer confusion and fear (with fear being what the EWG seems to thrive on).
  • Retinyl palmitate has been shown in UVB exposure studies to offer sun protection, and it is a potent antioxidant (Sources: International Journal of Pharmaceutics, October 2007, pages 181–189; and Journal of Investigative Dermatology, November 2003, pages 1,163–1,167).
  • In vitro (test tube) research showed that pure vitamin A (retinol) has a mutagenic effect on cultured skin cells when exposed to UV light. However, the conclusion reached was as follows: “Vitamin A in the skin resides in a complex environment that in many ways is very different from the chemical environment in solution and in vitro test systems. Relevant clinical studies or studies in animal models are therefore needed to establish whether the pro-oxidant activity of photoexcited vitamin A is observed in vivo [on human skin], and to assess the related risks.”
  • The studies examining vitamin A’s role in the presence of UV light did not involve the use of a well formulated sunscreen or credible sunscreen actives. Although damaging effects upon exposure to UV light were tied to vitamin A, there was no comparison to see what would happen if the lab samples were treated with sunscreen prior to UV exposure (Sources: Toxicology and Industrial Health, November 2007, pages 625–631; Toxicology Letters, May 2006, pages 30–43; and International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, June 2006, pages 185–190).
  • We know that vitamin A is an antioxidant, and we also know that antioxidants break down in the presence of sunlight, generating by-products that can potentially cause damage. This is how antioxidants work to protect your skin from the greater source of damage, which is sunlight—and it’s precisely why daily sunscreen use is essential!

The EWG’s Own Conflict of Interest

You may have noticed that the EWG recommends a small percentage of sunscreens. But did you also notice that the sunscreens they recommend as safe are available for purchase via links from their site? By linking to the sunscreen manufacturer’s Web site and making a purchase, you are adding to the financial coffers of the EWG, giving them the support they need to continue these unfounded, needlessly alarming reports. This represents the EWG’s commercial interest; they only want you to purchase the sunscreens that they think are safe (and they leave out hundreds of sunscreens we know to be perfectly safe and effective). If they were really concerned about your health and well-being, they would be more open to presenting accurate, peer-reviewed information and would have to admit that their stance on sunscreens is mostly without merit.

In summation, there is no credible, substantiated reason to avoid using sunscreens that contain any form of vitamin A, including retinyl palmitate. Following the EWG’s advice about sunscreen use and which sunscreens are safe not only severely limits your options, but is not based on criteria that even a novice scientist would consider wise.

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