Sunscreen Facts and Fictions: Pediatric Dermatologist Dispels Myths About Sunscreen Safety

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Robin Schaffran, M.D., FAAD sheds light on sunscreen safety as we officially kick off summer

80 percent of the lifetime damage to the skin happens before the age of 18," says Pediatric Dermatologist Robin Schaffran, M.D. "The risk of skin cancer from not using sunscreen far outweighs any potential risks from sunscreen use.

As a mother who happens to be a dermatologist, Dr. Robin Schaffran is passionate about the health benefits of sun protection. Lately her patients have been concerned about news stories that question the ingredient safety and efficacy of sunscreen and whether we should even use sunscreen on our children.

The issue is complex and there is research to back many different arguments and points of view. But as a doctor and a mother, Dr. Schaffran feels comfortable stating that sunscreens, however imperfect, are the best way to prevent skin cancer. The risk of skin cancer from not using sunscreen far outweighs any potential risks from sunscreen use.

That doesn’t mean all sunscreens work in the same way or that you shouldn’t pay attention to ingredients. For a comprehensive sunscreen FAQ's go to Here’s a quick primer to help you make the right choice for you and your family.

Is Sunscreen Effective?

After a report by the Environmental Working Group stated that only 39 out of 500 sunscreens provided adequate protection, Dr. Schaffran was inundated with concerned patients asking if it’s true that most sunscreens don’t work.

While it’s true that SPF claims don’t offer as much protection as the number the packaging promises, it’s not because the ingredients don’t work. It has much more to do with how we apply sunscreen.

Consumers generally apply only 1/2 to 1/5 the necessary amount of sunscreen for proper protection. An easy way to solve this problem: increase the amount of sunscreen you use and more importantly, re-apply after swimming and sweating. Wearing sunscreen does not give you a license to sit in direct sun. Sunscreen use should always be enhanced by hats and sun protective clothing.

Do sunscreens contain toxic or harmful ingredients?

A recent FDA study made headlines when it suggested an association between retinyl palmitate (a derivative of Vitamin A) and cancer. Subsequently, the Environmental Working Group suggests avoiding all creams that contain this ingredient. Dr. Schaffran believes the basis for the EWG recommendation is misleading. Here’s why:

The association between cancer and retinyl palmitate is based on animal studies where large amounts of the ingredient are applied to the skin of rats and then the animals are irradiated with high doses of UV radiation. This hardly translates to what happens when a small amount of retinyl palmitate is included in a sunscreen formula applied to human skin. Generally, retinyl palmitate is used in very small amounts mostly as a preservative to help keep the formula elegant.

In fact, another well-known derivative of Vitamin A is a prescription anti-aging cream called Retin-A or tretinoin. There’s also an over-the-counter alternative called retinol. And there are numerous scientific studies that show that these Vitamin A derivatives can be useful in preventing skin cancer when used regularly.

Another ingredient the Environmental Working Group advises against is Oxybenzone. Widely used in sunscreen, oxybenzone was recently in the news when a study indicated it could possibly cause hormone disruption and/or cancer. Unfortunately, there is no scientific consensus on this and it’s equally likely that a small amount of this ingredient poses no health risks to humans.

But if you are concerned and you want to avoid oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate, they are many choices available. You might want to choose a mineral-based chemical-free sunscreen that contains the active ingredients Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide for broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection.

Skin Cancer Prevention Starts Now

When it comes to sunscreen, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Skin cancer is a very real and serious problem. 80 percent of the lifetime damage to the skin happens before the age of 18, so incorporating sunscreen application in to your family’s daily routine is an important prevention measure. Do your homework, read labels but don’t panic. Enlist the help of your dermatologist and ask lots of questions. But please sunscreen every day. And remember, don’t be!

Robin Schaffran, M.D. is a board-certified Dermatologist who has been treating parents and children in her Beverly Hills private practice for over 10 years. She is an attending staff physician at Cedars Sinai Medical Center and over the years, she has developed an expertise in caring for children's skin. She has lectured extensively on the subject of skin cancer prevention and has been quoted in publications like the "Los Angeles Times" and "U.S. News and World Report." She also created Dr. Robin’s All Natural Chemical-Free Sunscreen especially for children and adults with sensitive skin. It is the first product in what will soon be a complete line of Dr. Robin for Kids skincare available here

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