As parents – and Floridians – sunscreen is a part of our life, and it’s important to us to understand sunscreen ingredients and their dangers to human health and the environment. Here’s how to choose a safe sunscreen for your family, including what to avoid and what to look for.
More sunscreen use –> more skin cancer… Something’s not right.
Why isn’t sunscreen doing its job?
The answer has to do with the sunscreens most people use, which have some pretty nasty chemicals. Collectively, these do a decent job of preventing sunburn, but they 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.
In basic terms, they trade UV damage for chemical damage, plus they have some scary side effects.
Types of Sunscreen
There are two basic types of sunscreens — chemical and physical. Each work differently to block the sun’s rays.
Chemical SunscreenPhysical Sunscreen
Environmental Considerations of Sunscreen
The active ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, frequently used at beaches and while snorkeling, are toxic to aquatic and marine life. The manufacturers of chemical sunscreens don’t tell us this, but those chemicals transfer from our skin into the water, where they harm, stress and even destroy coral reefs and other marine animals. Physical safe sunscreen ingredients cause no ill effect on natural water environments.
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 to enjoy sun-healthy lifestyles.
Shade & Sun Defense Clothing
Avoid peak midday hours in the sun. Higher, more direct rays are more intense because UV light travels a shorter route through the atmosphere.
Peak intensity hours are roughly 10am-3pm standard time and 11am-4pm daylight savings time. Seeking shade during these hours can reduce sun exposure up to 60%.
Wearing sun-protective clothing and quality sunglasses is another easy way to stay protected. If you plan to spend lots of time outside, invest in sun hats, sun-protective clothes, and UV-blocking sunglasses.
Foods that Provide Extra Sun Defense
Rarely mentioned is the nutritional component to skin protection. High levels of antioxidants allow our skin to remove sun-produced free radicals, which are what actually burns our skin and causes long term damage.
Those who plan to spend significant time in the sun should eat a diet heavy in antioxidants for 10-14 days or more before such activity. Consistent daily intake of high antioxidant levels fuels the body’s removal of up to 90% of sun-produced free radicals.
Choosing a Safe Sunscreen
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the US. 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 the guide below — to help consumers make informed and safe choices before they head outdoors.
Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid
Within seconds of application, oxybenzone penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. As a photocarcinogen that can attack DNA and increase 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. 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. It’s a potential endocrine disruptor, and studies in cells suggest it may impact hormones. In addition to direct health concerns, it 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. It typically degrades when exposed to sunlight and 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 accumulates 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, in order to extend shelf lives. Studies show parabens mimic estrogen, associated with certain forms of breast cancer. Parabens can induce allergic reactions, along with developmental and reproductive toxicity. They’re also estrogen disruptors, associated with infertility, abnormal development sexual organs, obesity, asthma, allergies, benign tumors of the uterus and digestive tract, and breast cancer.
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 it, as (like oxybenzone) it was found to increase sensitivity to allergic reactions, gaining a reputation as a skin sensitizer. Studies in the 1990s raised the concern that it could encourage formation of cancerous cells in the skin by releasing free radicals when exposed to sunlight.
Most manufacturers have phased out the use of PABA, and many well known brands like to highlight how they’re PABA free. This is 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.
Retinyl palmitate (Vitamin A)
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, it may speed development of skin tumors and lesions.
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, and it’s been linked to brain swelling, developmental toxicity, cellular changes, and organ toxicity.
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 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. We recommend avoiding such unnecessary chemicals in sunscreens.
Spray and Powder Sunscreens
People like sprays because they’re easy to apply on kids and hard-to-reach areas. But they pose serious inhalation risks, and users usually don’t apply enough to cover the skin adequately. The FDA has even expressed doubts about their safety and effectiveness but hasn’t banned them. Sprays are especially dangerous due to possible inhalation of nano-sized and micronized zinc and titanium. 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.
The FDA has decided powdered sunscreens should not be sold over-the-counter and should be subject to the more rigorous new drug application process.
Sunscreen + Insect Repellent
Studies indicate that concurrent use of sunscreens and pesticides leads to increased skin adsorption of the pesticide. 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 need to reapply sunscreen and bug repellent at different frequencies, and DEET (contained in many bug repellents) may reduce the SPF of sunscreen. 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 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.
SPF has less to do with deeper tissue UVA protection. 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 instance, 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.
Look for these safe sunscreen ingredients or labels
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 won’t block pores.
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 the skin, such particles can damage the system.
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 mess in trying to maintain broad spectrum coverage. Sunscreens are now required by the FDA to be labeled 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 this addition 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 verify all active and inactive ingredients. Many so called “organic” sunscreens contain oxybenzone and other dangerous chemicals. For a product to be truly organic, all ingredients must be food grade organic quality, and this isn’t possible in sunscreen, even for the safest, because zinc oxide isn’t deemed edible. However, you should choose sunscreens containing certified organic ingredients (for all ingredients that CAN be).
Lotions & Creams
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 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 the whiteness becomes more or less transparent. That level of coverage delivers the amount of SPF listed on the product.
Realistically, 30-40 SPF is all one needs, and more is a slippery slope to deep tissue skin damage (see SPF 50+ in the Bad list above).
Water resistance is good to have in a safe sunscreen, since it allows better coverage when swimming or sweating. Beginning in 2011, sunscreens formerly labeled waterproof or sweat-proof must now be labeled 40 or 80 minute “water resistant” because they protect from the sun for a limited period of time after exposure to water.
Remember “water resistance” doesn’t ensure full protection. It just means it will come off more slowly than non water resistant varieties. Follow product directions by applying plenty of sunscreen, then reapplying after swimming, sweating or towel drying.
Ocean & Reef Safe
Toxins and chemicals contained in many sunscreens are harmful to reefs and marine life. 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, and octinoxate, just to name a few, 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. 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 into coastal areas.
Any natural, safe sunscreen product (organic, biodegradable, and so on) is better for marine environments than those based on chemicals.
If, like many parents, you find yourself information overload when it comes to choosing a safe sunscreen, see our product guide: Safe Sunscreen Options for the Whole Family.