Are you putting safe sunscreen on your skin?
Sunscreen is supposed to protect us from the sun, but as more and more people use it, the incidence of skin cancer rises 4% every year. Let that sink in for a moment.
More sunscreen use, more skin cancer. Something’s not right. Where’s the safe sunscreen? We wanted to know too, so we did some research …
You may wonder if an aging population has something to do with it. Surely, but Americans aged 65 and older as a percent of our population is rising by only about 1.5% per year. That’s not nearly enough to account for the skin cancer increase. Maybe global warming? And some say more skin cancer is reported more often than before. But after all attempts to account for the problem, the fact remains. We buy sunscreen to protect us from the sun, and it’s not doing its job.
So why not? The answer has to do with what’s actually in the sunscreens. And it happens that the sunscreens most people use have some pretty nasty toxins and chemicals in them. Look at the ingredients of almost any well known sunscreen brand, and you’ll find some pretty bad stuff. Collectively, these do a decent job at preventing sunburn, but actually do more harm than good in stopping deep tissue damage, the kind that causes long term harm like premature skin aging and skin cancer.
There are two basic types of sunscreens — chemical and physical. Each work differently to block the sun’s rays.
Chemical sunscreens protect skin by absorbing the sun’s rays. They do this by seeping into your skin. This is why chemical sunscreens apply smoothly, without leaving a thick film and include active ingredients such as oxybenzone. The problem is that many of the chemical sunscreen active ingredients disrupt endocrine and hormone activity, and what may be worse, they actually encourage UVA damage, deeper in the skin. In short, chemical sunscreens protect the skin surface from the temporary discomfort of sunburn, but they’re simply passing the problem deeper, where we don’t notice it until years later when the dermatologist starts diagnosing serious skin problems.
Then there’s physical sunscreen. This utilizes minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as active ingredients, which sit on top of the skin and physically block the sun’s rays. They work immediately and do not seep into the skin. Zinc oxide is very protective against both UVA and UVB rays, unlike most chemical sunscreens, which are only effective against one or the other. Zinc oxide is also the sole sunscreen-active ingredient that’s FDA approved for use on infants.
The key drawback to physical sunscreens is cosmetic — they sometimes leave a white film. But properly formulated physical sunscreen can be spread to a thinness that is fully protective while being practically transparent on the skin.
There are also environmental consequences to sunscreen usage. The active ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, frequently used at beaches and snorkeling, are toxic to aquatic and marine life.
The manufacturers of chemical sunscreens don’t tell us this, but those chemicals leech from our skin into the water, where they harm, stress and even destroy coral reefs and other marine animals.
In contrast, physical safe sunscreen ingredients cause no ill effect on natural water environments.
Other Ways to Stay Safe in the Sun
The American Academy of Dermatology, while promoting the use of safe sunscreen, calls it just “one component of a daily photo-protection regimen.” We shouldn’t forget the other ways we can enjoy a sun-healthy lifestyle.
Shade & Sun Defense Clothing
A simple way to reduce your sun exposure is to avoid the peak midday, sun hours. As the sun climbs higher in the sky, the sun rays become more intense. This is because the UV light travels a shorter, more direct distance to reach the Earth.
The peak sun intensity hours are between 10am and 3pm standard time or 11am and 4pm daylight savings time. By seeking shade during these hours, you can reduce your sun exposure as much as 60%.
Wearing sun-protective clothing and quality sunglasses is another easy and important way to stay protected in the sun. If you plan to spend lots of time outside, invest in sun hats, sun-protective clothes, and UV-blocking sunglasses.
Sun Defense Foods
Safe sunscreens, shade and protective clothing are important, and there’s another, less known type of sun defense tool. What rarely gets mentioned is the nutritional component to skin protection. It’s been shown that high levels of antioxidants allow our own skin to remove the free radicals caused by sun exposure. Since free radicals are what actually burns our skin and causes long term damage, this free radical removal acts as another completely valid form of sun defense.
Those who spend (or plan to spend) significant time in the sun should eat a diet heavy in antioxidants for 1-2 weeks or more before such sun-heavy activity. In fact, consistent daily intake of high antioxidant levels gives the body what it needs to neutralize up to 90% of sun-produced free radicals, delivering the equivalent of up to 10 SPF, completely independent of other sun defense methods.
Wear Safe Sunscreen
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US, with some estimates showing over 2 million Americans are diagnosed each year. So safer, more effective sun defense products are vital for to maintain our collective health.
We understand choosing a safe sunscreen can be confusing, and that’s why we created this guide — to help consumers make informed and safe choices before they head outdoors.
Within seconds of application, oxybenzone penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. As a photocarcinogen that can attack DNA and increase production of free radicals, it promotes the formation of cancerous cells. It’s considered a contributing factor in the recent increase of melanoma cases among chemical sunscreen users. Research studies link higher concentrations of oxybenzone to various serious disorders, including endometriosis in older women, and lower birth weights in newborns. Some studies show it behaves similarly to the hormone estrogen, suggesting a link to breast cancer. It’s also been linked to eczema, and it can trigger allergic skin reactions and hormone disruptions. Needless to say, small children should avoid using products containing oxybenzone, but really, any human should avoid it.
One of the most common ingredients in sunscreens, octinoxate is readily absorbed by the skin and helps other ingredients get absorbed. An endocrine disruptor, it mimics estrogen and can disrupt thyroid function. Hormone disruption is a common side effect, harmful for humans and even wildlife, should they come into contact after it leeches from humans into water. Octinoxate has been detected in human urine, blood and breast milk, indicating its systematic exposure to humans. Though SPF products are designed to protect skin from sun-induced aging, octinoxate may actually encourage premature aging, as it produces menacing free radicals that can damage skin and cells. According to the EWG, Octinoxate is a moderate hazard, primarily because it can lead to developmental and reproductive toxicity through enhanced skin absorption. Dangerous to any one, it should certainly not be used by pregnant women and children, due to its estrogen-like behavior.
Typically an ingredient in UVB-absorbing sunscreen and offering no UVA protection, homosalate helps sunscreen penetrate the skin. Homosalate is a potential endocrine disruptor, and studies in cells suggest it may impact hormones. In addition to direct health concerns following exposure, homosalate may enhance the body’s absorption of pesticides. Homosalate degrades when exposed to sunlight, and like all salicylates, it is not powerful enough to stand on its own as UVB protection and is almost always combined with other UVB chemical filters.
Octisalate is used to augment UVB protection in sunscreen. As a salicylate (a weak UVB absorber), octisalate is generally combined with other UV chemical filters. Octisalate typically degrades when exposed to sunlight. It is a penetration enhancer, increasing the amount of other ingredients passing through skin. Research indicates it is a weak hormone disruptor, forms toxic metabolites, and can enhance the penetration of toxic herbicides.
Octocrylene is readily absorbed by skin and accumulate within the body. It absorbs UVB (top-surface) and UVA (deep-skin) rays and produces free radicals that damage cells and cause DNA mutations. There is evidence that octocrylene is responsible for reproductive toxicity, although the trials used doses higher than would be used in cosmetics. Quick to biodegrade and then bioaccumulate, Octocrylene has also been found in fish. Studies are pending on the environmental effects to marine life.
Parabens inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeast, and molds, and have been used in personal-care products like shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, and sunscreens for years, allowing these products to survive for months, or years, during shipping and on store shelves. Studies now show parabens mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen, which is associated with certain forms of breast cancer. Parabens in their various forms can induce allergic reactions, hormone disruption, along with developmental and reproductive toxicity. And what makes them especially dangerous is that they’re estrogen disruptors, associated with infertility, abnormal development sexual organs, obesity, asthma, allergies, benign tumors of the uterus and digestive tract, and breast cancer. Parabens are bad stuff.
PABA was introduced into sunscreens in the 1970s because of its natural ability to absorb UVB (shallow surface) rays. Most sunscreens today don’t use PABA. Like oxybenzone, it was found to increase sensitivity to allergic reactions, and because so many consumers were experiencing allergic reactions to it, it gained a reputation as being a skin sensitizer. It also tended to stain clothing. Studies in the 1990s raised the concern that PABA could actually encourage formation of cancerous cells in the skin by releasing free radicals when exposed to sunlight. The good news is that most manufacturers have phased out the use of PABA because of its tendency to cause allergic reactions. Many well known brands like to highlight how they’re PABA free. But this is sort of like saying it’s plutonium free, because PABA is so universally understood (by any company paying attention) as bad, PABA free is the case for almost all sunscreens. Those that list PABA free as a benefit tend to be ones with other, really bad chemicals and toxins.
Otherwise known as Vitamin A, retinyl palmitate is an extremely useful ingredient almost everywhere throughout the body, except sitting on the skin exposed to sunlight. As an ingredient in sunscreen, its purpose is to improve product performance against the aging effects of UV exposure. But on sun-exposed skin, retinyl palmitate may actually speed development of skin tumors and lesions. The German and Norwegian governments have gone so far as to warn that many people are exposed to excessive amounts of vitamin A, and that personal care products contribute significantly to this problem.
Hence, consumers should avoid sunscreens, lip products and skin lotions that contain vitamin A, which can also be listed as retinal palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol. Daily skin-related use of retinyl palmitate by a pregnant woman may also be toxic to the developing fetus. Such use has also been linked to brain swelling, developmental toxicity, cellular changes, and organ toxicity. Used with the skin, retinyl palmitate produces excess reactive oxygen species which can lead to cell death, and the compound may also be involved in cardiovascular disease.
Sunscreen is often injected with artificial fragrances as a means of making the product smell better to buyers. The list of chemicals used for this purpose is lengthy, and you’ll rarely see the actual chemical name of a fragrance listed, as many chemicals are grouped together under the umbrella term “artificial fragrance.” Cancer, nervous system disorders, allergies, and birth defects are some of the shocking concerns that have been linked to various artificial fragrances. Of course, we recommend avoiding such unnecessary chemicals in sunscreens.
People like sprays because they’re easy to apply on kids and hard-to-reach areas. However, they pose serious inhalation risks and people usually don’t apply enough to cover the skin adequately, so spray sunscreens are not recommended. The FDA has even expressed doubts about their safety and effectiveness but hasn’t banned them. The agency has decided powdered sunscreens should not be sold over-the-counter and should be subject to the more rigorous new drug application process. Sprays are especially dangerous due to possible inhalation of nano-sized and micronized zinc and titanium. Inhalation is a much more risky form of exposure to these than skin penetration, which is extremely low in healthy skin. If you want the benefits of a mineral sunscreen, choose a zinc- or titanium-based lotion. And if you use a pump or spray sunscreen, lower your inhalation risk by applying it to your hands and then wiping it on your face.
Sunscreens often contain penetration enhancers, which help chemicals soak into the skin. Studies indicate that concurrent use of sunscreens and pesticides leads to increased skin adsorption of the pesticide. The FDA is studying the safety of sunscreens with insect repellents and is considering new labeling requirements. Also consider that bugs may not be a problem during the hours that UV exposure peaks (eliminating the whole reason for the combination). You may also need to reapply sunscreen and bug repellent at different frequencies, and DEET (contained in many bug repellents) may reduce the SPF of sunscreen, and it’s a good practice to avoid using repellent chemicals on the face, since the fumes can be inhaled, and the chemicals can irritate and damage the eyes. In short, bug repellent sunscreen combos are a clever idea, but ultimately, they’re a misconceived option.
SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” but that term refers only to protection against UVB rays, those which burn the skin. In itself, this illustrates the over-concentration on the short term convenience of burn protection (which IS important) at the expense of long term health considerations. In other words, many sunscreen marketers are selling immediate satisfaction at the expense of the ultimate good. Big Mac, large fries, a 40-ounce Sprite, and a high SPF chemical sunscreen. What could be better, right?
The fact is, SPF has very little to do with a product’s ability to protect skin from UVA rays, those which penetrate deep into the body, accelerate skin aging, suppress the immune system and cause skin cancer. But while UVA protection in American sunscreens maxes out at about 15 to 20, high-SPF products give a false sense of security and tempt users to stay in the sun too long, and the FDA is actually considering barring SPF above 50. High SPF products also suffer from serious diminishing returns. For example, while a 30 SPF blocks 97% of UVB rays, a 100 SPF blocks 99%. A miniscule UVB blocking difference for a lot more deep tissue, UVA damage.
The American Cancer Society recommends sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15, the American Academy of Dermatology opts for 30, and the EWG recommends avoiding sunscreens with SPF over 50. SPF values above 50 in essence trick you into believing they’ll prevent sun damage. Don’t trust them. Safe SPF protection tops out at 30 to 50.
- SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays
- SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays
- SPF 30 blocks 96.7% of UVB rays
THESE SAFE SUNSCREEN INGREDIENTS
The sole sunscreen-active ingredient that’s FDA approved for use on children, Zinc Oxide has been scientifically proven as the world’s safest sunscreen and most effective UVA/UVB physical sun screen barrier. Effective across the entire UVA and UVB spectrum, zinc oxide holds tight to its electrons when it absorbs UV energy, limiting creation of free radicals. It’s non-toxic and safe for marine life. Stable in sunlight, it provides greater protection from deep tissue UVA rays than titanium oxide (a toxic heavy metal) or any other sunscreen chemical approved in the US. It is mildly antimicrobial, and it’s non-comedogenic (i.e. zinc oxide won’t block pores). In its non-nano variety (without really small particles), it does not penetrate the skin, sitting on the surface to physically block UV light.
Zinc oxide MUST be non nano to be fully safe. Nanoparticles are smaller than 100 nanometers, and some companies have used them in their sunscreens to make them less white. The problem is that when it penetrates through the skin, such particles can damage the system. Zinc oxide is safely used sitting on top of the skin.
Broad spectrum on the label means the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays. (Many sunscreens don’t.) UVB rays affect the surface layers of skin, causing redness and in extreme cases, sunburn and blistering. UVA rays penetrate into the underlying layers of skin, causing wrinkling, DNA damage, and in some cases skin cancer.
The primary ingredients in natural, non-chemical, safe sunscreens, zinc oxide or titanium oxide, provide effective broad spectrum protection by blocking both types. Chemical sunscreens can defend against both, too. But they do it by absorbing the rays, with different chemicals to block one or the other, and some UVB blocking chemicals actually encourage UVA rays to enter deep skin tissues. In short, chemical sunscreens are a hot mess in trying to maintain broad spectrum coverage. Sunscreens are now required by the FDA to be labelled as broad spectrum or have a warning label, so make sure you look for the broad spectrum UVA/UVB wording on labels.
Some safe sunscreens add antioxidants like Vitamin E and Vitamin C to their formulations to reduce free radicals caused by UV rays. Studies are beginning to show that the addition of antioxidants to safe sunscreen formulations can reduce the numbers of reactive oxygen species in skin more than two-fold. In addition to Vitamins C and E, good natural antioxidants to look for are olive oil, sunflower oil, jojoba oil, and coconut oil. But remember to stay away from Vitamin A as a skin application (see the “Bad” list).
While many sunscreens list “organic” on the label, it’s important to read all active and inactive ingredients, then decide for yourself. Many so called “organic” sunscreens contain oxybenzone and other dangerous chemicals and toxins. For a product to be truly organic, all ingredients must be food grade organic quality. In other words, the entire product must be fully edible, and this just isn’t possible in sunscreen, even for the safest, because zinc oxide isn’t deemed edible. However, you can (and should) choose sunscreens containing certified organic ingredients (for all ingredients that CAN be).
Lotions and creams offer more consistent coverage and higher levels of UV protection than spray sunscreens. You’ll need 1-2 tablespoons of safe sunscreen to cover yourself head to toe, with only a bathing suit on. You should use about 1/4 teaspoon for your face and neck and reapply every 2-4 hours. Using a zinc oxide based sunscreen, you can achieve the right coverage by applying just enough so that the whiteness becomes more or less transparent. At that level of coverage, this delivers the amount of SPF listed on the product.
Most dermatologists recommend avoiding SPFs above 50, because they give a false sense of security, encouraging users to stay in the sun longer while forgoing necessary reapplication. The numbers are misleading anyway; SPF 50 protects against 98 percent of the UVB rays (the only type SPF pertains to), and SPF 30 protects against 97 percent of them—not a significant difference in terms of UVB avoidance. And while using the high SPF products, users tend to get more UVA exposure than otherwise. Realistically, 30-40 SPF is all one needs, and more is a slippery slope to deep tissue skin damage.
Water resistance is good to have in a safe sunscreen, since it allows you better coverage when you’re swimming or sweating out in the sun. But under rules that went into effect in 2011, sunscreens formerly labeled waterproof or sweat-proof should now be labeled as either 40 or 80 minute “water resistant” because these products actually protect from the sun for a limited period of time after exposure to water. And remember “water resistance” doesn’t ensure full protection. It just means it will come off more slowly than non water resistant varieties. Always follow product directions by applying plenty of sunscreen, then reapplying after swimming, sweating or towel drying.
Just like industrial and consumer pollution, overfishing, and sedimentation, toxins and chemicals contained in many sunscreens are harmful to reefs and marine life in general. Confirming “reef safe” within the marketing messages doesn’t always get the whole story. Make sure to check the ingredients for any reef-damaging substances (like oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidine camphor, just to name a few, and all of which have been shown to cause coral damage, even at low levels). If any such chemicals are listed, the product isn’t reef safe at all, no matter what the package label implies. The fact that such chemicals stress and damage reefs has been confirmed in several laboratory tests and scientific field studies. These chemicals have been found in significant concentrations in water up to 100 meters from where people swim, far enough to reach coral reefs easily, and it’s suspected that oxybenzone and other chemicals reach reefs through waste water systems that vacate along and into coastal areas.
Any natural, safe sunscreen product (organic, biodegradable, and so on) is better for our marine environments than those based on chemicals. Surfers, divers and swimmers can reduce impact to marine life by using sunscreens with physical filters, such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide, both of which reflect instead of absorb UV rays.
Know Your Sunscreen. Trust Your Sunscreen.
Next time you grab for your sunscreen, flip it over and actually read the ingredients, including the “inactive” ones. Do you know what all of them are and what they’re doing? We’re dedicated to using only the healthiest, safest, most effective ingredients in our sunscreens, and we want everyone to know what those good ingredients are, regardless of whether they use our products or not. Their skin is worth it.
If you know someone who might still be buying sunscreen with shady ingredients, please share the above info with them. It could have a serious impact on their life – in the sun, and out. Thanks for spreading the word to the ones you care about, and here’s to thriving in the sun.