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Published on August 15, 2016

How safe is your sunscreen?How safe is your sunscreen?

At the Endocrine Society’s 98th annual meeting in Boston last April, researchers from the University of Copenhagen presented a study that suggested that ultraviolet light filters commonly found in sunscreens could prevent male sperm from functioning properly. They posit that the endocrine disruptors and other chemicals found in everyday products are contributing to falling fertility rates worldwide.

Eight of the 13 UV filters that disrupted sperm cells in the study are approved for use in the United States. These chemicals are common active ingredients in sunscreens as well as personal care products, such as makeup, moisturizers and lip balms that contain sunscreen.

But, despite the researchers’ concerns, Falmouth surgeon Peter Hopewood, MD, of Cape Cod Surgeons in Falmouth wasn’t terribly alarmed by the report because of the methods used in the study.

“They still need to do more studies because they just applied these substances to sperm in a Petri dish,” he said. “That’s not the same exposure as if you put it on your skin. It would be like having a bunch of mice and giving them a lot of aspirin. Well, if you give them too much aspirin they will die.”

Dr. Hopewood treats a lot of people with skin cancer and he is far more concerned about the real risks of that disease, especially now that summer is in full swing and more people are spending time outdoors.

Cape Cod has the second highest rate of melanoma in the state of Massachusetts. The only regions that are higher are Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket with 36.2 to 43.0 cases.

“We know that all melanomas are underreported because a lot of melanomas are treated in dermatologist’s offices, so they don’t show up in any of the hospital’s statistics,” Dr. Hopewood said.

Even more alarming, Cape Cod has the highest rate of mortality from melanoma in the state with 3.3 to 4.1 deaths per 100,000 per year.

Check the UV Index Daily

Dr. Hopewood recommends that people check the UV index every day. The National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have teamed up to create a website, uvawareness.org, where you can easily do so by typing in your zip code or address. You can also download an app for all types of cell phones at the website.

“The UV index goes from a scale of zero to 11-plus,” Dr. Hopewood said. “If the UV index is an 11 or above, the recommendation is sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat and staying indoors between ten and four. If the UV index is between six and seven, that’s medium high. You can go to the beach with sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat and stay in the shade.”

Dr. Hopewood recommends UV clothing and shade tents or umbrellas. He said the most important areas to protect are your back, arms, neck, shoulders and scalp, because those areas are the most susceptible to burning.

“Sunscreen should be applied 60 minutes before exposure to give it a chance to set,” he said. “Some of them are waterproof, but even if they’re waterproof, they should be reapplied after swimming.”

Dr. Hopewood cautioned that children are especially susceptible to the sun. That is especially true for babies’ tender skin. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies under six months of age avoid any sun exposure.

If babies do go outdoors they should wear light-weight long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a wide brimmed hat. If there is no way to avoid sun exposure, parents can apply a small amount of sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to small areas such as the face and the back of the hands.

The eight UV filters identified in the Endocrine Society’s study that are used in products available in the U.S. are avobenzone, homosalate, meradimate, octisalate (also known as octyl salicylate), octinoxate (or octyl methoxycinnamate), octocrylene, oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3 or BP-3) and padimate O.

Sunscreens that contain all natural ingredients or fewer chemicals are available. For those who are concerned about chemicals in sunscreen, the Environmental Working Group has a list of 203 sunscreens they approve as safe.