Setting The Record Straight On Sunscreens - Honolulu Civil Beat

A group of Civil Beat major supporters has pledged a collective donation of $30,000. Will you help to match their lead gift?

We've raised $110,000 toward our $225,000 year-end goal!

Donate

More than 2,236 donors have already made gifts during our year-end campaign!

A group of Civil Beat major supporters has pledged a collective donation of $30,000. Will you help to match their lead gift?

We've raised $110,000 toward our $225,000 year-end goal!

Donate

More than 2,236 donors have already made gifts during our year-end campaign!


About the Authors

Kevin Cassel

Kevin Cassel is with the Hawaii Skin Cancer Coalition and a committee member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine sunscreen review.

George Martin

George Martin is a dermatologist on Maui and leads the annual Maui Derm Conference.

As dermatologists and skin cancer researchers, we are dedicated to the health of our patients and, by extension, the larger community we serve. With this responsibility in mind, we became involved in the discussion on the use of certain sunscreens and have reviewed the scientific data on the potential impact on the coral reefs we value in our community.

Opinion article badge

As this discussion has continued, we strongly feel that we must set the record straight on certain facts. To that end, we were disturbed to see incorrect information and statements printed in the Sept. 23 Community Voice commentary, “How To Avoid Skin Cancer Without Harming Marine Species.”

The Community Voice piece tried to suggest that sunburns have nothing to do with skin cancers. This is completely false and dangerously inaccurate information. We treat patients suffering from skin cancer and address the risks for the disease which is predominately caused by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Sunburns are precursors to skin cancers caused by UV rays, which is cumulative over a lifetime and can lead to melanoma and non-melanoma cancers. Research shows that having five or more sunburns doubles the risk for melanoma, which kills 20 people a day in the US.

Hawaii has the highest rate of melanoma caused by UV radiation compared to other U.S. states according to an article in the International Journal of Cancer.

The August 2022 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine confirms that consistent use of broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreens has been shown to reduce the risk of skin cancer, sunburn, and photoaging.

We encourage people to use sunscreen as part of a comprehensive plan for overall skin protection, every day, to reduce the risk of skin cancer, but unfortunately many people are still not using sunscreen often enough or to the degree recommended.

The NASEM’s report clearly states that there is currently insufficient evidence to conclude that sunscreens are harming the marine environment. In fact, few environmental studies have been done to determine the effects of UV filters in aquatic environments. The results of these few studies conducted have inconsistent results, with many showing a “non-detect” or very low concentrations of UV filters in the ocean.

Some research done on UV filters on corals has been conducted in labs at concentrations 100 to 1,000 times higher than what is generally found in the ocean. We recommend that people take a moment to review the report and the committee’s conclusions that the EPA conduct a full ecological risk assessment of all sunscreens and support modeling studies on the potential effects of changes in sunscreen usage on skin cancer risks.

The NASEM report also casts doubt on whether mineral sunscreens are, in fact, “reef safe” — something that sunscreen ban proponents and lawmakers have assumed was true. In fact, there are numerous studies showing that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide may be hazardous to marine life.

Is Zinc really safe graphic
Toxicity data for UV filters in sunscreens on select marine life. Source: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine 

The NASEM report reviewed studies that showed that mineral UV filters can be toxic to marine life at concentrations that are even lower than those of chemical UV filters. In other words, mineral sunscreens may not necessarily be safer for the environment.

Moreover, the term “reef safe” does not currently have a regulated or standardized definition, so products labeled as “reef safe” vary in composition and ingredients.

The authors of the previous Community Voice piece misinterpret the Food and Drug Administration’s ruling by claiming that only two ingredients are considered as safe and effective for sunscreens. This is simply not true.

In its most recent 2021 ruling, the FDA encouraged the continued use of all sunscreens — both organic UV filters (chemical) and inorganic UV filters (mineral) as important skin cancer prevention tools.

Only the FDA has the final authority over which active ingredients are allowed in sunscreens and Maui County (and soon to be Hawaii County) could be overstepping its authority by taking away FDA-approved sunscreens from consumers.

Mineral sunscreens may not necessarily be safer for the environment.

It is important for everyone to remember that sun safety is a comprehensive package and should include practices like wearing UV protective clothing and seeking shade when possible. But sun-safe practices must also include using broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen on exposed skin whenever you are outside (not only at the beach).

We see skin cancers in people who rarely go to the beach, but spend much time working outside or commuting back and forth in the sun. The public health risk of skin cancer is real and it’s clear that more study on any potential risks of sunscreen products to the environment is needed.

We can do better to protect both public health and the environment.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.


Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: Vote For Moderates And Move Hawaii Closer To The Sane Center


Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

Contribute

About the Authors

Kevin Cassel

Kevin Cassel is with the Hawaii Skin Cancer Coalition and a committee member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine sunscreen review.

George Martin

George Martin is a dermatologist on Maui and leads the annual Maui Derm Conference.


Latest Comments (0)

For those of us who need sunscreen every day, just to work safely outdoors and far from the beaches, the recent disregard for public health by government regulators arbitrarily banning it was astounding. These folks supposedly collecting a paycheck to serve the public interest had no business restricting life saving effective sunscreen on the basis of zero scientific evidence related to reef harm. Thanks very much to Civil Beat for finally publishing a balanced view of this issue. Shame on the politicians who pretended to care about public health when it came to covid restrictions but not for skin cancer.

winjon · 1 month ago

"Laboratory observations show that, in high enough concentrations, some UV filters can be toxic to algal, invertebrate, and fish species." That's what the report cited by the authors says. Maybe the dermatologists should be telling their patients to avoidbeing in the sun for long periods.

sleepingdog · 1 month ago

20 deaths a year in the US is quite a minuscule amount. I don't know if that should be on the top of people's minds when considering their health and other deleterious effects to it. And I didn't think that the mineral sunscreens wash off in the ocean as compared to the others. Am I wrong in this?

Scotty_Poppins · 1 month ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.