We all know the importance of sunscreen when it comes to preventing skin damage and protecting skin from cancer, however, did you know that most people use either too little sunscreen or the wrong kind and may end up doing more harm than good?
The Environmental Working Group caused a stir a couple of years ago when it released it’s Sunscreen Guide, a comprehensive look at the 1,400 sun protection products on the market. The group found that only a few products were both non-toxic and effective. Many in the sun protection industry took issue with the report pointing out that the chemicals in sunscreen protect against skin cancer which for some means that the benefits outweigh the risks. However, there is no consensus about whether sunscreens actually do protect people from skin cancer effectively. Current research suggests that sunscreen protects against only one of three kinds of skin cancer, and not against melanoma, the deadliest form. Melanoma is rare, accounting for only 4% of all skin cancers, but it is deadly, accounting for 75% of all skin cancer deaths.
So do sunscreens lull us into a false sense of security? Are the chemicals in them doing more harm than good? And what is the ideal sunscreen?
Some researchers have detected an increase in melanoma rates in people who use sunscreen. This surprising finding may be because sunscreen wearers have a false sense of security and stay out in the sun longer and cover up less than people who are not as reliant on sunscreen. Even with this data, it’s still a good idea to wear sunscreen but it makes sense to be informed about what kind of sunscreen to pick. The best kind of sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays, don’t contain any nanomaterials which can penetrate the skin, and avoid red-flag ingredients like vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) and oxybenzone.
UVB and UVA Rays
UVB rays penetrate the skin more superficially than UVA rays but they are more energetic so they can cause burns and superficial skin damage. UVA used to be considered the “safe ray” and was the one produced by tanning beds which back in the 1980″s were thought to be harmless. However, we now know that UVA rays penetrate the top layer of skin, called the epidermis, and harm the layer underneath, called the dermis. It’s hard to believe we once considered UVA rays to be harmless when in fact they cause deep and lasting damage to the skin’s DNA.
I remember the difference between UVB and UVA like this…
- UVB = Burning
- UVA = Aging
Surprisingly most sunscreens protect us against UVB only, so they are better at preventing short term burning but fall short when it comes to protecting us from the long term effects of the sun on our skin.
The SPF (sun protection factor) number on a label measures protection primarily from UVB rays in that it is a measure of how much the sunscreen protects your skin from sunburn. Any UVA protection offered by a sunscreen maxes out at factor 15 so very high factor sunscreens may not be as valuable as they seem. In fact, in a 2007 paper, the FDA wrote that higher SPF values were “inherently misleading,” given that “there is no assurance that the specific values themselves are in fact truthful…”
Manufacturers of sunscreen started to use nanoparticles in their products to make sun-protecting chemicals such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide rub on clear instead of white. Whilst this is popular with consumers and helps us to look lovely at the beach the smaller particles may be more able to penetrate the skin. Research is mixed about whether this is harmful although tests on mice have shown that these nanoparticles may disrupt immune function.
Red Flag Ingredients
Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in sunscreens, which according to some research, may affect hormone balance. Experts are also concerned about how much of this chemical is absorbed through the skin and it’s potential for allergic reactions. Vitamin A sounds like a benevolent addition to many sunscreens because it is a key ingredient in many face creams. It is used in sunscreen for its anti-aging effects but an FDA sponsored cancer study showed that when combined with strong sunlight vitamin A can cause some skin cancers to grow.
Is there a perfect sunscreen?
A perfect sunscreen would block both UVB and UVA. It would remain on the skin for several hours, it would contain no harmful ingredients, nor would it have ingredients so small that they penetrate the skin. Of course…it doesn’t exist!
As consumers, we have a choice between chemical sunscreens that contain possible hormone-disrupting substances and mineral-based sunscreens which contain titanium oxide and zinc oxide both of which are safer. Unfortunately, most of the mineral-based sunscreens on the market use nanotechnology to make them clear rather than white, and therefore their chemicals penetrate the skin. With this in mind, I personally prefer zinc oxide as a sunscreen because:
- Zinc oxide gives better UVA protection than Titanium dioxide.
- Zinc oxide creates fewer free radicals in the body than Titanium dioxide.
- Zinc oxide is the only active ingredient approved for use on babies under 6 months of age.
How much and how often
Studies have shown that consumers apply about 1/4 of the amount of sunscreen they need to have a protective effect. About 1 tsp is appropriate for your face but most people don’t use that much. The American Cancer Society suggests you apply sunscreen early, frequently, and generously and by that, they mean putting cream on 30 minutes before going outside and reapplying every hour. Remember to apply more if you go in the water or are sweating a lot.
Some brands to try
Badger All Natural, All Season Face Stick, Sunscreen, SPF 30, Unscented – the only active ingredient in this is zinc oxide
Kabana Skin Care Green Screen Organic Sunscreen Fragrance-Free, SPF 20 – composed of zinc oxide, essential oils, and shea butter
Soleo Organics All Natural Sunscreen SPF 30+ – composed of zinc oxide, plant extracts, and green tea extract
Given that there is no perfect sunscreen the best advice is to use a mineral sunscreen containing zinc oxide, reapply it frequently, cover-up during the intense sun, and spend some time in the shade if you can.