It is hot. It is humid. It is sunny. It is 2018. I often get asked by patients what I use for sunscreen, and as we’re now in the hottest point of summer and we’re all trying to squeeze in as much outdoor activity and beach time as possible, I’d like to share with you some tips on how to be safe when choosing sunscreen for yourself and the earth!
At this point we all know about the dangers of sun exposure. I don’t have to tell you how damaging the sun can be to skin elasticity, tone, and even the skin’s immune system, combining with the natural aging process to cause photoaging, which results in what we normally think of as old skin: wrinkles, stretched, saggy skin–not to mention increased likelihood of skin cancer. But not all sun protection is created equal: if you cover up completely, wearing heavy, dark-colored clothing from head to toe, and never go outside, you won’t get any of the great benefits of the sun–increased Vitamin D levels and mood boosts. In addition, there is research that suggests that people who wear high level sunscreens–those above SPF 50–are actually more at risk of sun damage because they are less likely to reapply throughout the day. But an aspect of sun protection that often goes under-reported or even ignored is sunscreen toxicity.
You may not realize that the cosmetics we use every day have the potential to be extremely toxic and harmful, causing all manner of ailment from acne to rashes to more troubling issues such as hormonal imbalances, early menopause, hair loss, and even certain forms of cancer (leaving aside for the moment the harmful environmental effects these products cause as well!). Sunscreen is definitely on the list of products to be more mindful about.
Things to Look Out For When Buying Sunscreen
The 2018 Sunscreen Guide published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) warns against common sunscreen additives, the misleading nature of high SPF sunscreens, and a host of other potentially harmful effects caused by that generic, drug store, sport sunscreen. I wanted to break down the things to look out for as well as give you a bunch of great, clean alternatives. But one basic thing to know: active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms, mineral and chemical filters. Mineral-based sunscreens use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to block the sun’s rays. As you’ll see below, many of the troubling consequences of sunscreen come from chemical filters, which are used in the most popular and widely sold sunscreens on the market.
1. Vitamin A:
Retinyl palmitate, a form of Vitamin A, is added to 12% of sunscreens, 15% of moisturizers with SPF and 5% of lip products with SPF. Studies conducted by scientists at the National Center for Toxicology Research have shown that retinyl palmitate speeds up the rate of “photocarcinogenic activity”–that is, tumor growth–when combined with exposure to sunlight and may even trigger the development of skin tumors and lesions. The EWG recommends steering clear of sunscreens with retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, or retinol.
A common chemical found in many sunscreens, especially the spray-on kind, oxybenzone, or BP-3, actually blocks the skin from absorbing both UVA and UVB rays, an important factor in choosing an effective sunscreen. But oxybenzone has also been found to cause disruptions in our endocrine systems and has been unilaterally proved to harm coral reefs. The EWG cites a study that revealed that adolescent boys who had higher-than-normal levels of oxybenzone in their blood had significantly lower levels of testosterone. Oxybenzone has also shown up in breast milk samples, leading to the frightening possibility that some people are now exposed to these potentially disruptive substances even before they are born.
Equally frightening and even more substantiated is the fact that oxybenzone causes coral bleaching, and eventually, coral death, as confirmed by a study in The Archives of Contamination and Toxicology. Much as in humans, oxybenzone acts as an endocrine disruptor in coral, damaging the DNA of coral larvae. The National Ocean Service reports that the chemical enters the environment through wastewater effluent (water that is washed away from our bodies via showers or rain) as well as directly, through swimmers wearing sunscreen. The consequences of the destruction of coral reefs are wide-ranging, upsetting the entire marine eco-system, depriving millions of fish and other organisms food sources, shelter, and protection from prey, and taking away the barrier between large, potentially destructive waves and the shore.
3. High SPFs:
You may have it in your head that the higher the SPF, the more sun protection you are getting, the less likely you are to experience the consequences of sun damage. This seems logical, but…it’s not true. In fact, the higher the SPF, the less likely you are to reapply throughout the day, even after going into the water or exercising, and the longer you will stay out in the sun. Basically a high SPF provides a false sense of security, luring you into thinking you can slap some on in the morning, spend the next 8 hours roasting in the sun and be fine. Higher SPF sunscreens likely also have higher concentrations of harmful chemicals, including the two listed above, and there is growing evidence that it might all be false advertising: while a higher SPF sunscreen may prevent from sun burn, this doesn’t mean that you’ve eluded other types of sun damage; in addition, many high SPF sunscreens are actually not as high as they say they are!
Mineral-filter sunscreens, widely known to be better for the earth and your health than chemical-filter sunscreens, commonly contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. These aspects provide good protection from UVA rays (zinc is better than titanium), have virtually no skin penetration and no evidence that they cause skin allergies or disrupt hormones. However, both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens made today contain nanoparticles. What are these? Remember when you used to see kids running around with white stripes on their noses and cheeks? That was zinc sunscreen. Now, in order to make the sunscreen transparent on the skin, companies have taken to rendering these aspects into nano sizes, sometimes “one-twentieth the width of a human hair,” according to Credo Beauty. The problem with this is that very little is known about how these nanoparticles interact with other elements, and what effects they have on human health and the environment.
So…What Can You Do?
Now that I’ve thoroughly scared you and you’re ready to hide in a dark hole for the rest of the summer, I can assure you that there are alternatives! There are clean, effective, non-world-destroying products out there! Check them out and don’t despair:
- Suntegrity Skincare: While it’s a little on the pricey side, Suntegrity makes one of my favorite sunscreens: it’s non-nano zinc-oxide based, offers broad spectrum sun protection (against UVA and UVB rays), is free of parabens, sulfates, synthetic dyes, nanoparticles, and other harmful chemicals and is vegan and cruelty-free. It’s also not greasy at all and is super refreshing with cucumber, pomegranate seed and green tea extract for added protection and a lovely aroma.
- Raw Elements: Similar to Suntegrity, this company makes broad spectrum, reef-safe sunscreens with non-nano zinc oxide that boast ingredients like hemp, beeswax, rosemary, argan and Hawaiian sea salt. Most notably, the company is Hawaii-based and is a member of The Safe Sunscreen Council, a team of companies working to raise awareness about the effects of toxic sunscreen ingredients on our health and our habitat.
- All Good: With a great EWG rating, All Good has a wide variety of products including sunscreen specifically formulated for kids and sports, as well as sunscreen butter, lotion, spray and “butter sticks.” Like my other two favorites, their sunscreens are reef-safe and offer broad spectrum sun protection. Some of their products, for example the SPF 50+ Water Resistant Zinc Sunscreen Butter, have only 5 ingredients: zinc oxide, organic coconut oil, organic beeswax, organic calendula flowers, and Vitamin E.
- Make your own!: Katie at Wellness Mama shares her recipe for a completely natural, reef-safe, hormone-disruptor-free sunscreen made out of olive or almond oil, beeswax, coconut oil, non-nano zinc oxide, shea butter and essential oils, among other ingredients. With a homemade mixture, you can be absolutely sure there are no weird, impossible-to-pronounce additives.
Aside from buying (or making) natural sunscreens that don’t contain toxic chemicals, you should also consider taking action and standing with Hawaii, which just passed a law banning the sale of sunscreen that contains reef-harming chemicals. There are a number of organizations you can donate to that are working to save the reefs, clean up the coastal waters around Hawaii, and figure out how we can slow climate change.