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Protection or peril?

Reports of toxic ingredients have confused consumers, and many are looking for a few rays of clarity about sunscreens

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/7/2010 (2592 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When little Max developed a rash from his sunscreen, his mother, Lana Houghton, switched to a brand a friend told her was chemical-free.

"I order it from a catalogue," says the Winnipegger, noting that she worries about the long-term effects certain ingredients could have on her one-year-old son. "It's in the back of my head all the time. What am I putting on my kid's skin?"

Experts debate whether the risk posed by exposure to the sun is greater than the risk posed by some chemicals found in many sunscreens.

Experts debate whether the risk posed by exposure to the sun is greater than the risk posed by some chemicals found in many sunscreens.

During an interview with the Free Press, Houghton, 32, is told that oxybenzone -- a chemical found in many sunscreens -- can disrupt the body's endocrine system. In other words, it's considered toxic.

Houghton reads her "botanically based" sunscreen's ingredient list out loud. Her voice slows when she comes across the red-flagged ingredient.

"Oxybenzone... it's in my chemical-free sunscreen," says the Royalwood resident, sounding disappointed. "It's so hard to know what to do."

An article published in the July 6 Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) acknowledges that consumers are confused about sunscreen. On one hand, says the CMAJ, the Canadian Dermatology Association reports that eight out of 10 people don't know that exposure to sunlight is a major cause of aging.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) fourth annual sunscreen guide -- released in May -- endorses only 39 of the 500 sunscreens it rated.

The non-profit advocacy organization, based in Washington D.C., also flags oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate as toxic. Sixty per cent of the sunscreens it studied contains oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor some say can affect fertility, damage cells and cause allergies.

Forty per cent of the suncreens in the EWG report contain retinyl palmitate. Some controversial research suggests that this compound, when exposed to sunlight, can accelerate skin cancer.

Information from the popular report is circulating the continent. It's making sunscreen one of the latest in a long line of supposedly toxic everyday products that includes bisphenol A-laced baby bottles and phthalate-riddled vinyl toys.

Is fear of sunscreen toxicity warranted?

"I think the answer is probably no," says University of Manitoba chemistry professor John Sorensen, noting that if sunscreen poses any danger, so does cancer-causing, age-accelerating sunlight. "As with anything, it comes down to a question... of the lesser of two evils."

Retinyl palmitate is a form of vitamin-A that's combined with fatty acids so that it dissolves in creams and lotions easily. It's often added to cosmetics because of its anti-aging properties. Oxybenzone in sunscreen filters UV rays and helps other chemicals penetrate the skin.

Sorensen says amounts count. "With any chemical it's really, in some instances, the dose that makes the problem."

A Centers for Disease Control study released in 2008 found that 97 per cent of the more than 2,500 Americans it tested had oxybenzone in their urine.

Winnipeg dermatologist Dr. Earl Minuk says despite the EWG report, he will still recommend sunscreen to his patients -- even products containing the flagged ingredients. He even uses them on his own skin. The risks of not using sunscreen outweigh the benefits, he says.

In his two decades in practice Minuk has seen his share of patients damaged by the sun. While some have skin cancer, others look ravaged.

"Thin skin, lots of broken blood vessels, sun spots, lots of scaly pre-cancerous spots. Their skin is very translucent looking," says Minuk, noting that others have "the prune look" complete with "leathery" skin.

Minuk says high-numbered sunscreen offers good protection against the sun as long as it's applied frequently and in adequate amounts. (He says 30 to 60 grams of product typically is enough to cover a person from head to toe). While clothing, hats and sunglasses do offer cover from the sun's harmful UVA and UVB rays, he advises daily applications of sunscreen are still necessary for most people.

"These products have been around for years and we're not seeing any problems," says Minuk, who considers the EWG report old news. "This is a little bit of fear-mongering."

But Rick Smith, executive director of the Toronto-based advocacy group Environmental Defence disagrees. He believes sunscreen manufacturers need to remove certain chemicals from their products. Until then, consumers should stay away from them.

"Arguing that there's not enough evidence demonstrating that these (chemicals) are harmful -- once they are already in these products and are being smeared on our bodies -- is completely ass-backwards," says Smith, co-author of Slow Death By Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health.

The father of two young children says his family uses sunscreen that is free of oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and phthalates. People today are inundated with toxins, Smith says.

"The real problem these days is that we're not talking one chemical at a time," he says. "It's not like oxybenzone is the only hormonally active chemical in these consumer products. It's one of hundreds of thousands."

Smith says safer sunscreens use minerals such as zinc to filter the sun's rays. He says products with these ingredients were once thick and hard to spread but that's changing.

The environmentalist wants sunscreen-makers to replace known toxins with mineral-based sun filters. He's also calling on Health Canada to impose tighter regulations on the sunscreen and cosmetic industry.

The federal agency's recent history suggests that will happen sooner than later. (Smith says that in the last few years Health Canada has banned BPA in baby bottles, phthalates in kids' toys and certain flame-retardant chemicals in electronics).

"There is no question that we're going to see a lot of these (sunscreens) reformulated," says Smith. "And a big part of the reason is that parents -- and in particular, moms -- are demanding better."

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