Winter is knocking on the door and everybody is making plans for their vacation trips. Bikinis and flip flops are already packed, but what else is on the checklist? Sunscreen! The one thing that escapes our attention until the last minute, or even worse, until we’ve already been sunburnt – which is the nightmare of every dermatologist.
But do we really need to wear sunscreen and if so – how to choose the right one?
Pick up any article or video on skincare, there is a mention of sunscreen. All dermatologists swear by the importance of sunscreen to prevent or reduce sunburns and premature skin aging.
Improper sun exposure can indeed cause damage to your skin —— but we as humans also need the sun to thrive.
Since we’re told that sun exposure is damaging and sometimes even causes cancer, we often believe that sunscreen is our savior from heaven, but it’s not that simple. Sunscreens can sometimes do more harm than good.
Lately there have been lots of news of sunscreens containing highly toxic and cancerous compounds. In this article you will find many useful tips to make your decision making easier.
Ingredients in sunscreen you should look out for
Oxybenzone is one of the most widely used chemicals in our sunscreens. It has also been flagged as one of the most harmful ones. Oxybenzone has the power to effectively protect our skin against the harmful UV rays of the sun. But when we apply it to our skin, it gets absorbed. This is where the problem starts. The chemical oxybenzone has been linked to multiple conditions like allergies, hormone disruption, and general toxicity. For pregnant women, there is a risk of birth defects called Hirschsprung’s disease. There is also an environmental risk associated with oxybenzone. In fact, Hawaii has passed legislation to ban the sales of all sunscreens that contain it as it causes damage to marine life.
Octinoxate was part of the Hawaii ingredient ban due to its adverse effect on coral reefs. Octinoxate is used to protect our skin specifically from the harmful ultraviolet B rays. They do not protect us from the harmful ultraviolet A sun rays, and therefore, are always combined with other chemicals in the sunscreen. Similar to oxybenzone, it has been linked to multiple conditions around hormone disruption and organ toxicity. In fact, some scientific studies also claim that this has been detected in breast milk, urine, and blood.
Avobenzone is also always used with other chemicals like Octisalate as it is not sun stable. It is often used as an ingredient in sunblocks but is a common cause of skin irritation.This chemical needs as little as one day of use to seep into your bloodstream. A study from Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that levels of avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule, which are all active ingredients in sunscreens, exceeded concentrations that the FDA would flag after just one day of use.
4. Retinyl Palmitate
You must have heard of Retinyl (or Retinyl Palmitate). It is a strong antioxidant and a derivative of Vitamin A. Then why is it bad? A derivative of retinyl, retinol essentially thins the skin by removing a layer. It is found in many anti-aging skin care products and the general recommendation for individuals who use creams containing this ingredient is to use a high SPF during the day or stay away from the sun completely.Something else to keep in mind is that retinyl is a vitamin A derivative and is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Think again before you apply sunscreen on your belly. The risks might outweigh the benefits. Homosalate, Octisalate, and Octocrylene are some other no-go. These are also commonly found but are not as widely used as the above four.
The above checklist is however merely a gate check for making safer choices. Many sunscreen manufacturers have recalled their products from stores when other ingredients were banned. But many of them still stay. It is up to you to check with a source such as EWG.org to find out how clean your sunscreen is.
How to choose a safe sunscreen
Don´t fall for a publicity stunt!
The sunscreen market is huge. We have a huge plethora of sunscreens to choose from in every store or marketplace. How do you choose effectively?
First of all, we all need to be aware of marketing tricks by manufacturers. These are words used on the labels, such as organic, natural, based on nature, clean, with added zinc, etc. These are signs of good marketing, not quality products. Do not fall for them. Even organic products can contain artificial compounds that harm your health.
Synthetic vs Mineral Sun protection?
Active ingredients in all sunscreens either come from toxic or mineral filters. Most of the generic brands that you see in the market have chemically active ingredients.
Mineral sunscreens on the other hand use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These are way better alternatives than your average drugstore sunscreen. Why?
Minerals are sun stable and do not need to be combined with stabilisers. Stabilisers are usually synthetic or processed ingredients that sometimes do not react well with some types of skin.
This is especially true when we compare the skin of an adult to one of a child. As adults, we have thick skin which is less prone to irritation. However, children’s skin is a lot thinner and more vulnerable to the effects of chemicals in personal care products. So for children, choosing a mineral based sunscreen is a no brainer.
Conventional sunscreens carry a lot of chemicals into our bloodstream. But it doesn’t have to be this way, because these active ingredients can easily be replaced with minerals.
Mineral sunscreens are more stable and react well when they come into contact with sun rays. They are naturally occurring and provide a broad spectrum protection. Hence, they have a lower probability to cause irritation or reaction on our skin.
Most conventional sunscreens tested by EWG failed the safety tests for UVA and UVB protection. Meanwhile, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide based sunscreens showed very little if any harmful effects for humans. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are both naturally occurring minerals. This also means it’s safer for the environment than the chemical sunscreens. The bottom line is, the ingredients from mineral sunscreens do not get into our bloodstreams easily, if at all, and are therefore hands down the better option.
Well, the main thing is to avoid toxic sunscreen chemicals!
There is enough evidence to prove that chemicals enter through your skin and ultimately end up in your bloodstream.
To recap, avoid sunscreens with these ingredients on the list: oxybenzone, octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate), homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, avobenzone, retinyl palmitate (or just retinyl), and also, added insect repellent. The last one is an entirely different story, we’ll keep that for a future article.
Choose sunscreen that is based on titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
As you might have already figured out, it’s important to read past the front of the packaging. Keep the above list handy and your health and wellbeing will thank you.
Choose Sun Protection Factor wisely
Often, we see SPF labels on our sunscreen. SPF 30, and SPF 50 are some of the common ones. Some brands even have higher SPF levels.
The general notion is that higher SPF colorates to higher protection. This is why some sunscreen manufacturers use higher SPF labels up to 70 or even 90 to trick the consumers.
However, higher SPF does not mean better protection. In fact, higher SPF could have higher concentration of toxic ingredients which pose greater harm to our skin.
SPF 30 is efficient enough to protect us from about 96.7% of the harmful radiation. Whereas SPF 50 will do an insignificantly better job and protect us from about 98% of the radiation.
You do the math.
Countries with stricter regulations such as Japan or Canada have even banned SPF higher than 50. This also supports the idea that higher concentrations of chemicals can really pose harm to us.
A sunscreen’s SPF rating has very little to do with its ability to protect the skin from harmful UVA rays. With a higher SPF, the ratio of UVA protection decreases. So while they might protect us from sunburn better, they are less effective in shielding us from our immune system being suppressed, the formation of harmful free radicals in skin, and ultimately, development of melanoma.
As consumers, we also tend to misuse high SPF products. We think that it will protect us from the sun better and indulge in more hours sunbathing under harsh midday sun. As a result, the number of sunburns are just as serious in people who use a high SPF than in unprotected sunbathers.
Earlier, we mentioned the fact that sunscreens can be very unstable. The label often instructs us to keep them in a cool dark place, but that’s kinda hard to do on the beach. So the manufacturers protect themselves further and suggest their products to be used within six months after opening. But how many times did you have leftover sunscreen and kept it for next season? My wild guess is every time. Make sure you use your labels and use sunscreens as instructed.
Know what your skin needs
So you already know to look for a non-toxic option and to make sure you’re using the cream correctly. Most mineral sunscreens tick all the boxes for safety, but keep in mind, it’s always good to double check all the ingredients of what you’re buying.
And if you’re still not convinced or have other reasons to by conventional sunscreen, instead of a mineral based one, make sure they contain as few or none of the previously mentioned chemicals, and then second order of business, see if they check all these additional boxes:
Broad Spectrum Protection
Even with non-toxic and clean options for sunscreens, always look for broad-spectrum protection. Some chemical sunscreens do not have the right combination of ingredients. This means they only protect you from UVA or UVB rays. When you read broad-spectrum, it covers UVA rays and UVB rays and is therefore always more effective for us. But remember, higher SPF is not always better and distorts the healthy ratios of each of the protective mechanisms.
Choose according to your skin requirements. The lighter the tone of your skin, the more careful you should be as you have a higher risk of developing serious skin conditions, such as cancer. There are also sport sunscreen lotion, simple organic sunscreen lotion, oil-free sunscreen lotion, and some other variants to suit your skin sensitivity or needs.
Last, but not least, we have nanoparticles. Sunscreen manufacturers use nanoparticles in the sun blockers to make the application of sunscreen easier. You must have noticed that some sunscreens are greasy or create a white paste-like look on your skin. Nanoparticles make the application easy but also allow the sunscreen to disappear into the skin. Some sunscreens where nanoparticles are usually used include spray sunscreens, clear sunscreen spray, face sunscreen stick, body sunscreen stick and powder sunscreens. Stay clear from these.
There is often confusion about if nanoparticles are safe. Until recently, there was no evidence that nanoparticles are readily absorbed by our skin. But new studies have changed this and they proved that nanoparticles are present in the bloodstream of humans today. What we still don’t know is their long term effects on our health.
Find the right fit for you!
We hope that this guide answers your toxic sunscreen related queries, and also provides some ways to enjoy nature and summertime carefree.