Sunscreen is a pretty unique product. Unlike the other creams and lotions out there, we have to apply thick coats of sunscreen, apply it over a large area of our body, and reapply frequently. Since sunscreen is also generally something we want to stay on our skin, you'll find "penetration enhancing" ingredients. On the one side, the sunscreen will stick to our skin, but on the other, the ingredients in sunscreen are better able to absorb into the body. For example, chemicals from sunscreen can be found in the blood, breast milk and urine after application. What's probably pretty clear by now, opting for safe ingredients is important when choosing a sunscreen. While there's no perfect sunscreen, many are better than others. At the end of the day, regardless of the purchases you make, being an informed consumer is a great tool to protect yourself and your family. This post will be a quick guide on sunscreen based on the results from the 2016 analysis by the Environmental Working Group.
Don't Depend on Sunscreen!
Before we get going, I just want to make a quick note that we really shouldn't be depending on sunscreen alone. As part of a multi-layered sun protection strategy, sunscreen can be a great addition. However, when used alone it's interestingly associated with more sunburns and a higher risk of skin cancer. Let's take a step back and explore that just a little bit. Despite the fact that the sunscreen industry is now worth billions of dollars, skin cancer rates have tripled over the last three decades. Hmm, we're using more but also getting more skin cancer? Despite the claims that we see on many sunscreen labels, most scientists and public health agencies have found very little evidence that they prevent skin cancer. Yes, they do protect us from harmful UV rays. At the same time, when we slather ourselves with sunscreen we often think it's okay to then spend hours in direct sunlight. As a result, people who rely on sunscreen tend to burn, and burns are linked to cancer. For example, in 2011 the Stanford University dermatologists came to the conclusion that people who relied on only sunscreen had more sunburns compared to infrequent users who used hats and clothing to protect themselves, based on CDC national survey data. In a study on Swedish children, there was a link to more sunburns with more sunscreen use. Take home point, sunscreen can be a great addition to your sun protection routine, just make sure your not depending on it. In addition to sunscreen, wear proper clothing, seek shade, avoid spending hours in direct sunlight and spend less time in the sun mid-day when the sun's UV-rays are the strongest.
The Eco Well's Guide To Sunscreen
#1. What has your SPF done for you lately?
As consumers, we generally assume that the higher the SPF, the better the protection. Theoretically, one application of SPF 100 would allow us to sit in the sun 100 times longer before we burn. For example, someone who normally burns in 30 minutes could stay out for 50 hours. Clearly that would be ludicrous and doesn't really match reality. In fact, the difference between sun protection after SPF 30 is almost negligible. High SPF values tend to give us the false sense of safety when we apply these sunscreens. As a result, people who apply higher SPF sunscreen tend to stay out in the sun for longer and re-apply less frequently. Considering all of this, in 2011 the FDA determined that high SPF claims were misleading and proposed a cap at SPF 50, although this still hasn't been brought to action. In contrast, sunscreens in Europe are already capped at SPF 50. In addition to poorer sun protection than we are led to believe, high SPF's are generally geared at blocking high-energy UVB rays, which are the primary cause of sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancer. Unfortunately, high SPF sunscreens tend to have lower protection against lower-energy UVA rays that penetrate deeper and are associated with higher risks of melanoma cancer. Take home point, opting for sunscreens with SPF's of 15-30 can do an excellent job protecting even the most sensitive skin when applied properly. SPF's values higher than 50 are entirely a marketing tool.
#2. Broad spectrum is your friend!
As I've eluded to above, protecting against both UVB and UVA rays is an important skin protection tactic. While UVB rays, (the rays that cause skin redness and damage the DNA of the top skin layers) make up only about 3-5% of the UV rays, these again are the rays that many sunscreens are geared to protect against. From their perspective, if the sunscreen prevents a burn it's doing it's job. Unfortunately, the more abundant UVA rays can be just as damaging without causing any change to your skin redness. These rays penetrate deeper and cause a different, and potentially more destructive kind of DNA damage than UVB rays. As a result, most experts agree that broader spectrum protection is key. Really, higher SPF ratings only indicate UVB protection. The higher the SPF often means the lower the UVA protection. Instead, the ideal sunscreen should have a similar level of UVA and UVB protection: mineral based sunscreens tend to do this job very well compared to most chemical sunscreens. Take home point, look for labels that read "broad-spectrum" over "high SPF."
#3. Mineral or chemical bath, which sounds better?
The sun-protective ingredients in sunscreens can come in two forms, mineral or chemical. At the moment chemical based sunscreens dominate the sunscreen market. Unfortunately, they also have a pretty alarming number of questionable active ingredients that have been classified as unsafe for human use. For example, oxybenzone is a popular chemical filter found in 70% of the chemical sunscreens surveyed by the EWG in 2016. This chemical is a known allergen, endocrine disruptor, and environmental contaminant. In addition to oxybenzone, many other chemical filters appear to act as endocrine distruptors and environmental contaminants. Another ingredient of concern, although not as common nowadays, is Retinyl Parmate, a form of vitamin A demonstrated to react with sunlight to cause tumors and lesions in animal studies. If sunscreens weren't a product that required copious amounts to applied and re-applied, or if they didn't have penetration enhancers, perhaps these ingredients wouldn't be as much of a concern. But since they are, safe ingredients should be an important consideration when you chose a sunscreen. As a result, chemical sunscreens probably shouldn't be your first choice.
In contrast, mineral-based sunscreens are stable in sunlight, have broad-spectrum protection, have very few health concerns, are safer for the environment and often contain much less harmful filler ingredients. These include Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide options and have come along way since back when we used to see the white life guard nose band. These products can now blend in better, due to new nanoparticle technology. These molecules can now be as small as one-twentieth the width of a human hair. While I know, that sounds kind of scary, no need to be alarmed; the FDA and European Union studied and concluded that nanoparticles don't penetrate the skin. While this technology isn't perfect, i.e. smaller particles have better ability to "blend in" but poorer UVA protection, Mineral-based sunscreens are still rated very favorably by scientists, public health agencies and the EWG, especially compared to chemical based sunscreens. So when it's an option, opt for mineral based sunscreens over ones that are chemical based!
#3.5 Check out the fill!
Again, since we generally slather ourselves repetitively with sunscreens that are great at absorbing into our skin, safe ingredients should be important when we chose our sunscreens. Inactive ingredients make up anywhere from half to nearly all of sunscreen products. One ingredient in particular is a cause for concern: methylisothiazolinone, or MI, a preservative that was recently named “allergen of the year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2013, is still surprisingly found in some of our sunscreens. In March 2015, the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded that no concentration of MI could be considered safe in leave-on cosmetic products. Other ingredients to look for that are known allergens, environmental hazards or endocrine disruptors include parabens, phthalates, PEG's (polyethylene glycols), propylene glycol, phenoxyethanol and sodium laurel sulphates. An easy rule when your reading the label of your sunscreen, if you don't recognize that ingredient with a long chemical name, it's probably better to keep it off of your skin. Now I'm not trying to be a fear mongerer here, but again, we apply, reapply and absorb sunscreen... safe and eco-friendly ingredients are important!
#4. Use creams instead of sprays!
Despite the fact that sprays dominate the sunscreen market, they pose a inhalation risk and may not provide a thick and even coat of protection. Although mineral based sunscreens don't migrate through the skin, inhaled nanoparticles can enter the bloodstream through the lungs and may cause lung damage.More research is needed to negate these concerns. Until then, it might be worthwhile to avoid these products and opt for creams instead.
#5. Stock up on resources!
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts together a yearly list of the best sunscreen choices based on effectiveness and safety. Their scientists review over 1400 sunscreens and rank them on a hazard sale of 0-10: 0-2 is low-hazard, 3-6 is moderate hazard and 7-10 is high hazard. This list is a great, evidence based, resource to keep in your back pocket when you decide which sunscreen is right for you and your family. Find their complete 2016 list at www.ewg.org/2013sunscreen
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- EU SCCS (Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety). 2012. Opinion on ZnO (nano form), 18 September 2012. European Union.
- Environmental Working Group. (2016) EWG's sunscreen guide: a decade of progress, but safety and marketing conerns remain. https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/executive-summary/
- Godar DE, Landry RJ, Lucas AD. (2009) Increased UVA exposures and decreased cutaneous Vitamin D(3) levels may be responsible for the increasing incidence of melanoma. Med Hypotheses 72(4): 434-43.
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- National Cancer Institute. (2016 )SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Melanoma of the Skin. Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results. And SEER Cancer Statistics Review 1975-2013, http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/melan.html
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- Sadrieh N, Wokovich AM, Gopee NV, Zheng J, Haines D, Parmiter D, et al. (2010) Lack of Significant Dermal Penetration of Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) from Sunscreen Formulations containing Nano- and Sub-Micron-Size TiO2 Particles. Toxicol Sci.
- Warshaw, E.M., Maibach, H.I., Taylor, J.S., Sasseville, D., DeKoven, J.G., Zirwas, M.J., et. al.(2015) North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011–2012. Dermatitis, 26(1):49-59.