While we’re often told that covering up with sunscreen is one of the best things we can do for our skin, more and more research is emerging to show that this may not be the case.
Even though the number of people using sunscreen each year is rising, the incidence of skin cancer continues to climb worldwide. It may be because two-thirds of the sunscreens analyzed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) – including many popular brands – did not work well or contained potentially hazardous ingredients.
And a paper, published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, states that:
“Sunscreens protect against sunburn, but there is no evidence that they protect against basal cell carcinoma or melanoma. Problems lie in the behavior of individuals who use sunscreens to stay out longer in the sun than they otherwise would. Vitamin D inhibition is, at this stage, unlikely due to insufficient use by individuals. Safety of sunscreens is a concern, and sunscreen companies have emotionally and inaccurately promoted the use of sunscreens.”
That’s why we need to become much more vigilant about what we put on our skin – starting with sunscreens. Here’s all you need to know about sunscreen.
Not All Sunscreens Are Equal
There are two different kinds of sunscreens – chemical sun-blockers and mineral sun-blockers. They are both said to do the same job (i.e. protect us from the sun’s harmful ways) but they work in very different ways.
Chemical sunscreens cause a chemical reaction that works to prevent damage from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. On the other hand, mineral sunscreens are almost like a physical barrier – they block or ‘scatter’ the rays away from the skin.
While some scientists are worried that mineral sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in nanoparticle form (as opposed to their safer non-nano form) may be small enough to enter the bloodstream, there are far more concerns surrounding chemical sunscreen ingredients. Here are six of the most common:
Permeates the Skin
Some of these pose serious health concerns, particularly as putting chemicals on the skin can be worse than eating them, because they enter our bloodstream without any filtering.
And of the myriad of lotions and potions we use, chemical sunscreens may be especially worrying as ‘most are known to permeate the skin to some degree’, according to the EWG.
One of the most common sunscreen ingredients, oxybenzone, has been detected by the CDC in the bodies of 97% of Americans tested. And two European studies have found sunscreen chemicals in mothers’ milk – up to 85% of samples tested – indicating that the fetus and newborns are at risk of exposure to these substances.
Mimics and Disrupts Hormones
Based on research, several of the most common chemicals used for sun protection – including oxybenzone, octinoxate and homosalate – have raised suspicions that they may mimic hormones and disrupt the hormone system.
Of these three, oxybenzone is by far the most studied sunscreen chemical. In fact, the EWG lists over 20 studies citing oxybenzone as a hormone disrupter, and a link has been found between higher concentrations of oxybenzone in the body and increased risk of endometriosis and lower birthweight in daughters.
A 2015 study, published in the journal of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, demonstrates that male fish exposed to higher concentration of oxybenzone developed characteristics of female fish and exhibited higher estrogen levels.
Meanwhile, the chemical octinoxate has been linked to thyroid and behavioral changes in animal studies; while homosalate is thought to disrupt estrogen, androgen and progesterone.
Causes Skin Irritation & Allergies
Those with sensitive or allergy-prone skin should be careful about the type of sunscreen they use as many contain irritating preservatives, fragrances or sun-blocking chemicals. People who use sunscreen often, like outdoor workers or women who use skin care products containing sunscreens, should also be vigilant as they are more at risk of skin irritation.
Symptoms of the irritation – like rash, itchy skin, blisters or swelling – don’t always appear immediately, and can take up to a few days to emerge.
One ingredient to look out for is a preservative called methylisothiazolinone, or MI, which the American Contact Dermatitis Society named as ‘allergen of the year’ in 2013.
Releases Free Radicals
Of the 1,400+ sunscreens tested by the EWG, over 40% were listed as potentially contributing to skin cancer.
This may occur because some of these sunscreens contain a form of vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol, and retinyl palmitate, which can release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight, increasing the speed at which malignant cells develop.
Spray-On Sunscreens are Even More Dangerous
Spray-on sunscreens can present some unique dangers as they can be inhaled which may lead to further risks not associated with creams, according to Dr. Henry W. Lim, chairman of the Dermatology Department at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
In fact, many of the studies which highlight the dangers of sunscreen chemicals actually involve the subjects inhaling or ingesting the chemicals, rather than rubbing them on the skin. This is why the FDA is in the process of investigating the potential dangers of spray-on products.
Not Properly Regulated
With so many toxic chemicals, you would expect that the FDA rigorously and continuously test the safety and efficacy standards for sunscreen ingredients. However, Dr. Axe claims that sunscreens haven’t been regulated since 1978 in the USA.
The subject of sunscreen is certainly a complex one. Exposing your skin to the sun is not to be taken lightly. After all, skin cancer is the most prevalent form of all cancers in the US, and the number of cases continues to rise. If you are exposed to the sun for long periods of time, then safe sunscreen is certainly recommended.
But if you are stepping out for a few minutes at a time, depending on your skin type, you may not need to apply it. Sunscreen with an SPF of just 8 has been shown to lower our ability to produce Vitamin D …by 95%! It’s thought to be one of the reasons why around 75% of us are Vitamin D deficient. Learn more about the importance of Vitamin D and sunlight exposure here.
Thankfully, there are a number of ways that you can naturally protect your skin without the use of harsh chemicals:
Buying Mineral Sunscreens
These are every bit as effective but not anywhere near as dangerous as their chemical counterparts.
After rigorous testing, the EWG recommend these sunscreens as being the safest and most effective natural sun protectors you can buy.
Here are five of the best:
- Badger All Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30, Unscented
- All Natural SPF 50 Biodegradable Visible Mineral Sunscreen by Tropical Sands
- Beauty By Earth Facial Cream with SPF
- Kiss My Face Kids Mineral SPF 30 Natural Organic Sunscreen
- Suntegrity “5 In 1” Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen
Foods and Supplements
Protect your skin from the inside out! The American Cancer Society says that, because oxidative damage can increase your cancer risk, consuming a variety of antioxidants through food sources (rather than supplements which are often ineffective) can help reduce cancer risk.
Eat a well-rounded diet to include the following:
- Orange foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and cantaloupe which are high in beta-carotene (Vitamin A) and can reduce sunburn and wrinkles.
- Citrus fruits – contain quercetin and Vitamin C.
- Spinach, kale and other leafy greens which are high in lutein.
- Tomatoes, watermelon and red peppers which contain lycopene.
- Omega 3 fatty acids, found in salmon, fish oil, flaxseeds, walnuts and canola oil.
- Foods rich in selenium (which has been found to reduce risk of death from skin cancer by 50%) such as Brazil nuts, walnuts and grass-fed meat.
- Teas – which are high in antioxidants. Here are 17 fantastic herbal teas.
- Berries – the highest fruit sources of antioxidants.
- Fish or UV treated mushrooms – which are full of Vitamin D, something that can have a protective effect against sunburn and skin cancer.
- Olives, olive oil, nuts and seeds – rich sources of Vitamin E, great for healing the skin.
Oils with Natural SPF
Plenty of all-natural ingredients – some of which you probably already have in your home – have an in-built sun-protection factor (although it is difficult to know how much protection they offer). Nevertheless, every little helps so add these to your beauty routine and homemade skincare products for extra sun blocking abilities:
Red Raspberry Seed Oil – of all the oils, Red Raspberry Seed Oil may provide some of the highest broad spectrum UV protection as it contains vitamin E, vitamin A, and omega fatty acids.
Hemp Seed Oil – said to offer an SPF of around 6, hemp oil can be used on your skin or taken internally to boost omega 3 levels.
Macadamia Oil – also believed to have an SPF of 6.
Sesame Seed Oil – an SPF of approximately 4.
Homemade Sunscreen Recipes
Depending on your level of sun exposure, a homemade sunscreen could be just what you need. (If you’re outside for long periods of the day or have particularly sensitive skin, you may be better to invest in a non-toxic mineral sunscreen, listed below.)
If you do make one of these recipes, keep in mind that the SPF cannot be accurately determined and is usually lower than store-bought brands so you will need to apply more often, as well as every time you get wet.
Wellness Mama Homemade Sunscreen – ingredients include almond oil, coconut oil, wax, non-nano zinc oxide, red raspberry seed oil, carrot seed oil, vitamin E oil and shea butter. For added natural fragrance, you can also infuse the almond oil with herbs before making or add a little coconut or vanilla extract!
Scratch Mommy DIY Sunscreen – this is a pared down recipe for those who prefer a simpler process. It’s made using coconut oil, apricot oil, wax, shea butter, non-nano zinc oxide and vitamin E. For those who prefer the simplest option of them all, you can also buy this online from Scratch Mommy’s shop.
Three-Ingredient Tinted Sunscreen Recipe – take a high-quality homemade lotion (like this one) and blend in non-nano zinc oxide, along with cocoa powder for a little natural bronze. It’s almost too easy!
Dr. Axe’s Lavender Sunscreen – taking just 20 minutes to make, this recipe is enough for ten full applications. It also smells delicious and soothing thanks to lavender essential oil, pomegranate oil, coconut oil and shea butter – along with non-nano zinc oxide of course.
Other Tips on Avoiding Sunburn
Before you slap on the sunscreen, consider if there are other ways to protect your skin. You could try:
- Covering up – shirts, hats and shorts shield your skin from the sun’s UV rays, reducing risk by 27%.
- Wearing shades and a hat – your eyes, and your thin facial skin is more prone to sun damage like premature wrinkling.
- Avoiding peak sun hours – usually from 11am to 3pm when sun is higher in the sky.
- Relaxing in the shade – take cover under a tree or parasol. Infants should also stay in the shade, reducing the risk of multiple burns by 30%.
- Checking the UV index – to help you plan your outdoor activities in order to prevent sun overexposure.
- Using ‘internal’ sunscreen – by eating the foods listed above.
- When using a safe sunscreen, use enough – you need to spread on about the amount that would fill a shot glass every two hours to safeguard your whole body. If you are sweating or swimming, you need to reapply more regularly.
- If you get burnt – use a mixture of aloe vera, coconut oil and vitamin E to cool down your skin. Here are some more sunburn remedies.