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Applying sunscreen is an important part of any beauty regimen. But are all sunscreens created equal?
The most recent research on sunscreen has revealed some troubling side-effects. Some studies have even shown a correlation between increased risk of skin cancer and sunscreen use. Others have uncovered common sunscreen ingredients that can cause skin damage and harm the environment. These results show that you can’t protect your skin by slathering on just any old sunscreen.
There are two types of sunscreen on the market today: chemical and physical. Both defend your skin against the sun’s rays, but they differ in how they interact with the sun, your skin, and the environment.
The bottles lining the shelves of your local store are likely chemical sunscreens. Unfortunately, they often contain troubling ingredients that can cause skin and environmental damage. Physical sunscreens are much more skin-friendly, and many are environmentally friendly, too.
Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreens
Chemical sunscreens, also referred to as organic sunscreens, use carbon compounds made in a laboratory to protect the skin from solar radiation. When exposed to sunlight, they absorb and release the UV rays safely away from your skin.
Although chemical sunscreens may be great at protecting you from the sun, many contain harmful active ingredients that can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. Two common ingredients, oxybenzone, and retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, are particularly problematic..
Oxybenzone has been linked to hormonal changes and cell damage. Retinyl palmitate can speed up malignant cell growth. Because these chemicals absorb into your skin, it leaves you more susceptible to their negative effects. Oxybenzone has also been linked to coral reef damage and sunscreens containing this ingredient are banned in Hawaii.
Physical sunscreens; often called inorganic or mineral sunscreens contain natural minerals ground into powder. These mineral particles, typically either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, physically block the sun’s UV rays by reflecting them away from the skin.
Because the particles need to sit on top of the skin to work, they can sometimes leave a white residue or feel greasy. Still, the EWG’s 2018 Sunscreen Guide recommends mineral sunscreens, in particular, those containing zinc oxide, and here’s why:
- They do not break down in sunlight, meaning they are more stable and longer-lasting than chemical sunscreens.
- They offer broad protection from both UVA and UVB radiation.
- They are less likely to contain harmful additives.
- Many manufacturers use mineral nanoparticles (which are smaller and reduce the white residue left by the sunscreen), but studies have shown that the number of particles that absorb into the skin is negligible. Products that use coated nanoparticles (meaning the mineral particles are covered by an inert substance) are even less risky.
Physical Sunscreens and the Environment
Researchers and activists have raised concerns about the potential damage that zinc oxide does to the environment and our oceans. Like oxybenzone, zinc may damage coral reefs.
One study found that uncoated nanoparticles were the main culprits, so check the labels to makes sure you are buying mineral sunscreens with coated nanoparticles or non-nanoparticles. For a complete list of ingredients that are harmful to the ocean, click here.
How to Choose?
Do your skin and the environment a favor and look for environmentally conscious mineral sunscreens.
Badger’s sunscreens contain safe non-nano zinc oxide particles, are biodegradable and certified Reef Friendly. Stream to Sea and Manda Naturals are two other great options offering mineral-based sunscreens that are coral reef and ocean safe.
Review: Tips for Sunscreen Use
- Don’t be afraid of the sun. Get your vitamin D fix daily, just don’t spend too much time outside without SPF protection.
- Avoid sun exposure during peak midday hours.
- Try hanging out in the shade, wearing a hat, or adding light outer layers. You can even make your own DIY sunscreen from ingredients that contain natural SPF for mild, everyday protection. But for those long beach days or other activities when you’ll be in the sun for hours on end, the best protection is a good sunscreen.
- Choose a mineral sunscreen that is good for your skin and the environment. Look for coated nanoparticles or non-nanoparticles.
- Avoid ingredients known to trigger allergic reactions or cause hormonal changes and skin damage, such as oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
- Simpler is better: added chemicals and fragrances in sunscreen can cause adverse skin reactions and increases the risk of contaminating the environment.
- Avoid sunscreen sprays. Inhaling the ingredients can cause health problems, and they do not guarantee adequate skin coverage.
- Use sunscreens responsibly. Wearing sunscreen does not make you invincible. If you must be out in the sun for prolonged periods, reapply your skin and environmentally safe sunscreen often.
It’s not that the sun is bad for us: we gain valuable vitamin D from the sun’s rays! But if you are going to expose your skin for long periods without wearing a hat or other extra layers, it’s best to grab a bottle of safe, mineral-based sunscreen.
What sunscreen do you like to use?