Summer is finally here, which means it’s time to enjoy some fun in the sun. However, before you grab your swimsuits and make a beeline for the nearest pool, let’s take a minute to discuss sun safety. We all know that increased exposure to the sun can lead to skin cancer, but did you know that your brand of sunscreen may not lower that risk, and may even pose new risks of its own?
This week, with insights from our trusted advisor and sunscreen expert Dr. Debby Hamilton, MD, MSPH, I’ll review what to look for in a sunscreen in order to maximize protection and minimize risk so you can have a worry-free summer.
A good sunscreen should be broad-spectrum, protecting against both UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) rays. Most sunscreens provide good burn protection, but the long-term damage done by UVA rays can be much more harmful. Sunscreens with higher SPFs (50+) are especially guilty of misleading customers, touting increased safety over lower SPF options when in fact they are less protected against UVA rays and only marginally better protected against UVB rays. Luckily, broad-spectrum sunscreens are becoming more popular due to growing awareness of this issue and new FDA regulations requiring manufacturers to label their products more accurately.
Lotions, Sprays, Powders – Oh My!
Sunscreens now come in a variety of applications, including aerosolized sprays and brush on powders alongside the more familiar lotions. Of these options, lotion is the easy winner. While not all lotions are non-toxic, all sprays and powders come with the additional risk of inhalation, which can introduce harmful chemicals into your lungs and bloodstream much more easily than through skin absorption alone. It is also much harder to get even coverage with a spray or powder. So don’t be fooled by claims of convenience and instead make safety and protection your primary concerns.
As Dr. Debby describes in her new book, most sunscreens fall into one of two categories, both of which come with risks. As with anything that enters your body via your skin, it’s important to understand how ingredients may affect us. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing into your skin and deactivating sunlight within your cells. The concern is that common ingredients can oftentimes act as hormone disrupters, causing problems if absorbed into the bloodstream. Additionally, exposure of ingredients to UV rays can create free radicals within your skin cells, which are known to damage and potentially mutate DNA. Oxybenzone, one of the most popular SPF ingredients on the market, perpetuates both of these risks. Other offenders include Phenol, Octinoxate, Octocrylene, and PABA.
On the other hand, mineral sunscreens are promoted as the safe alternative to chemical sunscreens. Instead of absorbing into your skin, the active ingredients (generally zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) sit on top of your skin and act as a physical barrier reflecting the sun’s rays. In the past, these mineral sunscreens fell out of fashion due to their chalky white color and unpleasant texture, but newer sunscreens are now being offered with micronized versions, or nanoparticles, of the minerals.
This recent technology allows the use of these minerals with less of the ‘pasty’ look and feel. The problem is that any particle under 50 nanometers in size can be absorbed into your skin. These particles have the ability to absorb a lot of heat and energy from UV rays, which can cause them to break down into free radicals at the cellular level within your skin. Anatase titanium dioxide is of particular concern after it was shown that sunscreen containing this ingredient was able to break down the coating on steel roofing material leftover from contact with construction workers’ sunscreen coated skin.
Dr. Debby stresses the point that toxicity should be taken into consideration when choosing mineral sunscreens. “Although both zinc and titanium are used in sunscreens, there is a difference between the two substances. Zinc is an essential mineral that is often low in diets. On the other hand, titanium is a toxic metal, and we don’t know the long-term effects of titanium on the body. I have often seen elevated titanium levels in children with autism. Titanium is also a very allergenic metal, similar to nickel, that causes skin rashes.”
With so many options and important considerations, you may be asking yourself what the best course of action would be to minimize sun damage this summer. Public health agencies recommend skin coverage and timing your exposure as good first-line precautions against sun damage. So Dr. Debby suggests that you cover your skin with protective clothing, seek out shade protection, and avoid the strong midday sun. Her recommended second-line defense is sunscreen. “I recommend sunscreen products with zinc oxide as their only active ingredient.”
This summer I'm loving consciously crafted, non-nano, zinc-only options from Babo Botanicals and Badger Co. Their unique sunscreens are super moisturizing with certified organic oils, and also naturally safe for the whole family.
~ XOXO, Liz