What to Look for in Sunscreen for Healthy Skin Protection
As more activities and travel options open back up to us, it’s important to prioritize getting more sunshine and Vitamin D this summer. Vitamin D helps us absorb calcium for strong teeth and bones. It also supports cellular function, helps regulate the immune system, and supports the neuromuscular system. Vitamin D may even be helpful in treating or preventing certain diseases, though its effects are still being studied.
When skin is exposed to enough sunlight, your body makes Vitamin D by itself. As many of us have spent more time inside in the past year, we may be low on this critical nutrient. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to multiple types of cancers, heart disease, and depression.
Living the Almeda lifestyle means that we take care of our bodies -- including that most magnificent of organs, the skin -- from the outside in!
How to safely get sunshine and Vitamin D this summer
It’s clear that we need and want to enjoy the abundant sunshine of summer. However, it’s helpful to do this in a protective way, because too much UV radiation from sunlight can unfortunately cause premature wrinkling, splotching, and skin cancer. Brief exposure is best.
Sunscreens can help, but there’s more to sunblockers than choosing between lotions and creams, or even SPF levels. Let’s take a look.
Mineral-based sunscreens vs. chemical-based sunscreens
Mineral-based sunscreens use naturally occurring ingredients like zinc oxide (a UVA/UVB reflector) to block UV rays. Since zinc oxide blocks both UVB and UVA light effectively, it is generally considered the best choice.
- Unfortunately, some mineral-based sunscreens use titanium dioxide, which has recently been called out as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
Even so, mineral-based sunscreens are generally considered safer than chemical-based sunscreens.
About 70% of sunscreens available today are chemical. Chemical-based sunscreens can block ultraviolet (UV) rays, but they often use toxic substances to achieve this effect.
What kinds of chemicals and harmful ingredients are used, you ask?
- Over half of sunscreens (up to 60%) use Oxybenzone as a UV light absorber. Unfortunately, this ingredient may be an endocrine disruptor (causing hormonal problems) and may actually cause some photoallergic reactions. While some countries have already banned Oxybenzone, the U.S. has not. The Centers for Disease Control reports that over 97% of Americans have oxybenzone in their systems.
- Parabens mimick oestrogen, which disrupts hormones and triggers increased breast cell division and tumor growth that can lead to breast cancer. Parabens also affect reproductive systems of both men and women as well as reproductive development, fertility, and outcomes at birth. Parabens show up on labels as butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben.
- Retynil palmitate, made of palmitic acid and retinol (Vitamin A), may unfortunately increase the rate of development of skin tumors and lesions according to the Environmental Working Group.
- "Fragrance" may represent one or several of some 3,000+ different chemicals, many untested or under-tested.
Risks and safety concerns of chemical sunscreens
While many people generally assume that whatever is sold in stores is safe to use, the chemical industry is -- sadly -- mostly unregulated. Sunscreen companies can use any ingredients they want, without government review or approval.
The scientific research on environmental pollutants and toxic chemicals is large and growing. Exposure to toxic chemicals likely leads to illness, including:
- Reproductive problems,
- Birth defects,
- Respiratory illnesses (e.g., asthma) and
- Neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., ADHD--attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Additionally, terms like “hypoallergenic” or “gentle” don’t guarantee safety. In fact, these are unregulated claims and independent researchers have found allergens in some products labeled hypoallergenic. It’s important to read labels, but also to find brands that you know and trust. Further, what may be considered “safe” for an adult may not be safe for children, infants, or a still-developing fetus.
Ways we absorb chemicals in sunscreens
Unfortunately, there are several ways we absorb chemicals of sunscreens several ways -- not just through the skin. We might inhale vapors of sprays or powders, swallow them from around the lips, and absorb them via skin and mucous membranes. Spray sunscreen in particular has inhalation risks.
We need to know more about the effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) and safety hazards of spray sunscreens. The FDA has announced it may consider banning sprays in the future, unless research shows they are safe.
Understanding sunscreen SPF and exposure to UVA versus UVB rays.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation comes in three forms -- somewhat uncreatively named ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB), and ultraviolet C (UVC). UV light from the sun mainly transmits through the atmosphere as UVA or UVB rays. Most sunscreens target some amount of both UVA and UVB light.
UVA light is harder to block, as it penetrates deeper into the skin. It is the part of UV light that causes skin cancer.
SPF ratings are based on UVB, the part of UV light that causes sunburn.
Chemical-based sunscreens with high SPFs, are actually not as effective at blocking UVA light compared to mineral-based sunscreen.
When evaluating sunscreen, the ingredients list is ultimately more important than the level of SPF. Look for mineral-based sunscreens that contain zinc oxide. Avoid harsh chemicals. Get to know specific brands that have ethical practices you can trust. And enjoy your summer!