DIANE PHILLIPS: The surprising good, bad and scary story about sunscreen


Diane Phillips

CERTAIN smells remind you of the sweetest days of your childhood, in my case, it was the sun-kissed days in the Florida sun, punctuated by the thrill of crashing ocean waves and the unmistakable aroma of Coppertone. That coconut scent, the medium warm brown container (the colour I strived to be), was as much a part of my little girl days as a beach blanket and a little red bucket.

Little did we know back then that while Coppertone was benzone-free (making it safe) and originally designed to promote tanning before we understood the dangers of sun to our skin, its early use would usher in a wave of self-help protective measures.

Sunscreens popped up as fast as a pimple in puberty.

One brand after another promising if you slathered them on, you’d be golden brown and tanned to perfection while being protected from the ultra-violet rays of the sun.

But the rub was that much of what you were rubbing on was not – and is still not – safe. Whether your skin is dark or light or something in between, there’s no question that too much sun harms it.

That growing awareness about the need for protection has given rise to a sun care market valued in 2021 at $8.28 billion. Today’s products come in a seemingly endless array of sprays, creams, lotions, water-resistant levels and, of course, SPFs. Check out the amount of shelf space or close-to check-out counter real estate that sun care takes in a store near a beach and you’ll appreciate just how big the business is.

Yet only in the last few years has there been recognition that what we think is protecting us may actually be causing us grave danger.

The skin is the largest organ. What goes on it goes in it.

And what is going on it and in it in a lot of the most popular sun care products is a chemical called Oxybenzone or a derivative – Benzophenone-3, Avobenzone.

According to Denis K Dudley, MD, FRCS, OB-GYN board certified in the US, Canada and Great Britain who specialised in high-risk pregnancies, his research into sun screen began with a simple question from a patient. Is it safe to use sun screen while pregnant? He became alerted to the dangers of certain sun care products, including those using chemicals first developed for pesticides in babies in utero 30-36 weeks. Here, in his words: “Many studies - including those of USA FDA from in 2020 - confirm that 12 Soluble Organic UV Filters (SOUVF) – some of which were first developed to be pesticides and patented for this use by Monsanto in 1954 – enter human blood and literally bathe every cell in a child’s body, including those in the brain. The pollution of our entire civilisation – humans and the global environment – every water reservoir and the food web – by these pesticidal petrochemicals with proven or potential endocrine and mutagenic effects is now complete. All of this for no demonstrable benefit, a fact obscured by industry and their consulting dermatologists for over 50 years.”

While sun care products have exploded in growth, so has melanoma which has tripled since 1970, says Dudley, noting there are 15 published papers arriving at the same results.

The FDA still permits the inclusion of up to six percent oxybenzone in sunscreen products, but after recent research has also found high levels of it in coral reefs, more resorts and cruise lines are either banning products containing the ingredient or recommending others. According to 201 research published by King’s College in London, the chemical “causes the reefs to be susceptible to bleaching and lose their protective algae. Furthermore, oxybenzone is also alleged to be an endocrine disrupter that causes baby coral to encase itself in its own skeleton and die.”

Dudley and his wife, a leading dermatologist, were so alarmed at what their research was uncovering that their chemical lab evolved into a successful sun screen company now operated by their daughter. Dudley is not trying to promote the company so it is not even being named in this column but if you Google the words or names, you will see the awareness it has raised.

His message – use zinc oxide at 25%, an insoluble filter with the UVA required to prevent skin cancer.


An aerial view of the oil spill in Exuma. Photo: Reno Curling


WE GOT lucky. When 35,000 gallons of diesel spilled in Exuma this week, everything that could have gone right when something has gone so wrong, did. The oil was in a bay-like area, making immediate containment a lot easier than if it were in open ocean. Wind was not an issue. Response by Sun Oil, DEPP and the Department of Environmental Health was immediate once the spill was discovered.

Yep, we got lucky. This time. But we did not the last time nor the many times we do not know about when a pipeline running fuel from a floating barge or other vessel to a BPL or other generator in a Family Island leaks. One expert told me “It happens all the time, it’s just not as dramatic.”

Another told me it’s been going on for decades.

Kudos to government for quick action on this one, the lucky unlucky spill. But how long are we going to maintain this antiquated means of providing power when we live in a land of unrelenting sun that can be transformed into solar power?

If this government really wants to be transformative – and it is showing signs of doing so – juggle those priorities pushing solarisation to the highest level behind climate change mitigation and disaster preparedness and prevention because next time we have an oil spill we might just find that we used up a little too much of our luck already.


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