The Blue Sky of July: Choosing Safe Sunscreen

Madaket Beach

We wait all year for the blue skies of summer, but time at the beach and on the boat can take a harsh toll on our skin. The dangers of overexposure to the sun have been amply documented, along with the need to use sunscreen to protect skin from both burning and accelerated aging. That sounds like a simple instruction to follow, but it’s important to remember that sunscreen is a chemical preparation applied to the body’s largest organ.

Dozens of studies have documented the potential health hazards associated with the chemicals in sunscreen.  Beyond possible skin irritation, these chemicals can create skin damage and even hormone disruption.  Most sunscreens include a combination of three to six of the following ingredients:  oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate.

Why is it important to know about the chemicals you put on your skin?  Mark Hyman, M.D., has said that personal care products are the next frontier in health risks and awareness. A nicotine patch applied to the skin calms the craving for a cigarette, demonstrating that our skin is a protective barrier, but also extremely porous.  Transdermal absorption means that what you put on your skin also gets into your bloodstream.

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Our sunscreen may cause us some concern, but we are also seeing skin cancer rates increase.  Melanoma, the most deadly skin cancer, has tripled over the past 35 years.  Although many sunscreens claim to provide broad spectrum, or both UVB and UVA protection, U.S. sunscreens often have inadequate protection against UVA rays. Without an effective labeling program, consumers are unable to determine whether their sunscreen provides low, medium or high levels of protection. (SPF factors only assess protection against UVB rays.)  Consequently, many people think they are better protected than they are, and stay out in the sun far too long.

A sun made with suncream at the shoulder (shallow dof)

What You Need to Know

  •  Mineral versus Chemical Filters:  There are two kinds of active ingredients in sunscreen, mineral and chemical filters.  Each protects skin differently, though both may pose health hazards.  
  • Chemical Filters Contain Avobenzone: Avobenzone is the best agent for filtering UVA rays, but it can break down when exposed to sunlight.  Chemicals such as octocrylene must be added to stabilize the product.
  • Octocryclene May Disrupt the Hormonal System: Some research suggests that oxybenzone and two other sunscreen chemicals–4-MBC and octinoxate–could be toxic to reproductive systems. Another chemical, oxybenzone, which is found in 80 percent of chemical sunscreens, can cause allergic skin reactions and also may disrupt hormones.  The Center for Disease Control has detected oxybenzone in more than 96 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Mineral Sunscreens Filter UV Rays with Nanoparticles: The active ingredients in mineral sunscreens are usually zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, in the form of “nanoparticles.”  The Environmental Working Group tends to favor mineral sunscreens, because they are stable in sunlight.  Some nanoparticles, however, may be small enough to penetrate the skin and accumulate in body tissue. 
  • UVRays Mainly Cause Burning:  SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is the degree of protection a sunscreen provides against UVB rays.
  • UVRays Mainly Cause Aging:  UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin, and contribute to wrinkles, sagging and dark spots.
  • The FDA Uses Weak Criteria: Half the U.S. sunscreens would not make it to the shelves in Europe, which adheres to stricter standards.  Americans may be getting a false sense of security from high SPF numbers, and staying out in the sun too long.
  • Anti-aging Retinol May Be Risky: Although it’s a common sunscreen ingredient, studies show that vitamin A (Retinol, or Retinyl palmitate) could speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied in sunlight.  It’s present in nearly 25 percent of all sunscreens. Keep it in your night cream!

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Here’s What to Do

  • Don’t Get Burned: Plan around the sun.  Go outdoors in the early morning, or late afternoon, when the sun is lower.  Wear protective, loose-fitting clothing:  it’s the best protection from UV rays.  
  • Protect Your Eyes:    Sunglasses do more than make you look fabulous.  They protect your eyes from UV radiation that causes cataracts. Invest in a high-quality pair.
  • Choose Your Sunscreen Carefully:   You want to choose broad spectrum protection with ingredients that cause the fewest health concerns.  Avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone, a synthetic estrogen.  Remember that high SPF sunscreen can encourage you to overdo your time in the sun.  
  • Use at Least Two Ounces of Sunscreen: Most people don’t apply enough.  Two ounces is enough to fill a shot glass.  Make sure you reapply every two hours, or after swimming. 

The Environmental Working Group, an environmental health research and advocacy organization which provides information to consumers to make healthier choices, has posted a guide to the best 2013 sunscreen products.  Check out their list of 184 products here. 

One of my favorite, safe sunscreens is made by MDSolarSciences.  Their products are approved by the Environmental Working Group, and are created with the intent to cause the least amount of potential harm from an environmental standpoint.  I like their products because they’re non-greasy, and non-comedogenic (meaning they won’t clog pores and cause breakouts), and the lotion smooths on like silk.  It’s fragrance free–so important in a world where we are constantly bombarding our senses.  They make a sensitive skin formula for the face, which is also suited for Acne or Rosacea prone skin.  And, it’s very water resistant!

The summer sunshine is beautiful.  Protect your skin, and enjoy every moment of it!

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