Sunscreen: Protector or Predator?
When it comes to sunscreen, most of us often find ourselves more concerned with its SPF strength than the actual ingredients! I mean 120+ must be the most effective, right…? WRONG! Let’s think about this for a second. Our skin is the largest organ in our body, absorbing over 60% of what we lather onto it. YIKES! Now just that alone is a cause for concern and the number one reason why we ALL need to start becoming more conscious about the products to which we choose to expose our bodies. So what’s the deal with sunscreen anyway?
We’ve all grown up thinking that we must protect our skin from the sun’s “harmful” rays at all costs. Avoiding cancer and other skin diseases is definitely at the top of our to-do lists – or at least they should be – but what happens when most brands of sunscreen actually contain chemicals that are linked to cancer? Not to mention other health threats like hormone disruption, skin irritation, and even skin damage? Not only that, but most of us don’t truly understand what it is in the sun’s rays from which we need protecting. So here we go, just a quick and dirty lesson on sunscreen and you’ll become a pro when it comes to eco outdoor skin care!
The 411 on sunscreen:
Why do we need it in the first place?
The sun’s UV rays come in all different lengths, intensities and are the shortest rays in the visible light spectrum. UV (which stands for ultraviolet) rays are the ones our eyes detect as the color violet. There are three types, which include UVA, UVB and UVC. The UVC rays are the shortest and no cause for concern when it comes to our health. The other two however, require our undivided attention.
UVA rays are the longest and most harmful to our health. They cause damage at the cellular level, increase our risk of skin cancer and even cause photo aging, wrinkles and discoloration of our skin. These rays have the power to penetrate our skin as deep as our second layer of skin, the dermis.
UVB rays are the culprits that cause our skin to tan and burn. They’re just a bit longer than UVC rays and only penetrate the skin’s most outer layer, the epidermis. Though not as harmful as UVA rays, exposure over long periods of time can rapidly age your skin, giving it a leathery or wrinkled look.
The Hypocrisy of Conventional Sunscreen Brands
While the intention of sunscreen is to help prevent the onset of skin cancers and other diseases, many conventional brands of sunscreen contain loads of toxins that actually increase your risk of these problems.
There are two main types of sunscreens currently on the market, Chemical sunscreens and Physical Barrier sunscreens.
Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays before they have a chance to penetrate and damage the skin. Although that seems pretty kosher, these types of sunscreens are actually more controversial because they penetrate the skin (enhancing skin absorption) and can lead to allergic reactions, skin irritation and other serious issues. To make matters worse, these products use chemical filters as their active ingredients (see the list of No-No Chemicals below)
Physical barrier sunscreens, on the other hand, form a protective layer on top of your skin, blocking and reflecting the sun’s harmful rays. These products use mineral filters as their active ingredients and effectively block UV rays while protecting the skin safely. Minerals used are either zinc oxide or titanium oxide (often a combination of the two). These come highly recommended because they don’t break down in the sun and offer good protection from UVA rays with few, if any, health concerns.
The No-No Chemicals to absolutely AVOID:
1) Oxybenzone: Penetrates the skin (enhances skin absorption), causes biochemical or cellular level changes, allergic skin reactions, organ system toxicity and is categorized as a hormone disruptor. It contaminates the bodies of 97% of Americans according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
2) Octinoxate (Octylmethoxycinnamate): Hormone disruptor, reproductive system, thyroid and behavioral alterations. Penetrates the skin and causes moderate rates of skin allergy.
3) Homosalate: Skin penetration, disrupts estrogen, androgen and progesterone, and sunlight breaks down the chemical into harmful byproducts.
4) Octocrylene: Causes biochemical or cellular level changes, skin penetration, persistence and bioaccumulation and high rates of skin allergy.
5) Octisalate: Mild skin penetration.
6) Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate): May actually speed the development of skin cancer. Many companies add a form of vitamin A to their formulas, utilizing it as an anti-oxidant to slow skin aging. However, studies done by U.S. governmental scientists have suggested that it may speed the growth of cancerous tumors and lesions when used on skin exposed to sunlight.
What to look for in a quality, eco-friendly, healthy sunscreen:
1) Make sure to choose products that contain mineral based ingredients, which don’t penetrate the skin: brands of sunscreen that use only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, as active ingredients are Green Girl Approved!
2) Go for non-nanoparticle formulations: nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are often used in sun products to minimize the white film these ingredients tend to leave on the skin, however this has raised concern due to its potential to penetrate the skin and cause adverse health effects!)
3) Choose paraben-free: Parabens are used as preservatives and anti-bacterial agents. In addition to sunscreens, they are often found in many conventional cosmetic and personal care products. The health concern – parabens have been found to alter hormone levels, possibly increasing risk for certain types of cancer, impaired fertility, or alteration of the development of a fetus or young child; studies have found parabens in breast tumors; probable skin toxicant and even animal studies revealing brain and nervous system effects!
4) Don’t go higher than 45 SPF: After a certain point, higher SPF doesn’t correlate to higher protection; so don’t fall for marketing tactics! In fact, these chemicals have been found to penetrate the skin to cause even more damage than the sun.
5) Broad Spectrum: Protects against both UVA + UVB rays
6) Unscented or essential oil based: Watch out for unspecified “fragrance” that could be made up of toxic chemicals.
7) Water resistant, and lotion based
Now that you know which kinds of sunscreen to avoid (i.e. the ones that contain any of the no-no ingredients) and which kinds to support (i.e. the ones below that will nourish your skin and offer full coverage protection, the eco-friendly way!) it’s time for you to make your pick!
Luckily, we have chosen our top 4 favorite protectors of evil… I mean of UVA + UVB rays… and included a little blurb for you about why they’re Green Girl Approved.
For more information on safe sunscreen and an all-encompassing guide to sunscreens, visit our friends at the Environmental Working Group!