As is true of so many personal care products, sunscreens contain many synthetic chemical ingredients that haven’t been tested for safety. The American Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require the manufacturers of these products to prove their safety before bringing them to market. In Europe, chemicals must undergo safety testing before getting to store shelves. The system used in the United States ultimately means Americans are unwittingly subjects of a vast and uncontrolled science experiment.
One of the biggest difficulties we have in understanding the health effects of the 80,000 industrial chemicals currently in use is that most of us get miniscule doses of numerous different ones each day. While I may be getting low doses of imidacloprid in my tea and glyphosate in my bread, you may be taking in a little BPS with your canned soup, chloramine in your drinking water, and sodium lauryl sulfate in your shampoo. We know very little about the effects of these compounds at low doses or about possible interactions among them.
While it’s difficult to avoid this chemical soup, a little knowledge can go a long way to reducing what’s known as your toxic load. One smart place to start this summer is your sunscreen. The natural sunscreen market has grown exponentially in the last few years, and safer options are easier to find than ever.
Ranking Sunscreens: A Report from the Environmental Working Group
The latest report on sunscreens from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit consumer watchdog, reviews extant research on skin cancer and sun safety. One of the most startling takeaways? Insufficient evidence exists to prove that sunscreen actually helps prevent skin cancer.
Although sunscreen sales have soared in recent years, skin cancer rates have also risen. Researchers speculate that people using sunscreen believe themselves protected and spend too much time in the sun, which does damage we can’t see that nonetheless raises cancer risk. SPF, they explain, only measures protection from sunburn, not other types of sun damage. Many sunscreens they tested don’t sufficiently block UVA rays, which penetrate more deeply into the skin and cause a different type of DNA damage.
Worse still, many ingredients commonly found in sunscreen may have serious health effects. Conventional sunscreens usually rely on a combination of chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate and octinoxate to filter UV rays. Oxybenzone, a suspected endocrine disruptor, was found in nearly 65 percent of non-mineral sunscreens in the EWG’s 2017 sunscreen database. Your skin is highly effective at absorbing these ingredients, and they quickly make their way into the bloodstream. A 2008 CDC study detected oxybenzone in 97% of subjects tested.
Each year, the EWG evaluates the current crop of sunscreens for safety and effectiveness and assigns them a rating from 1-10, with 1 being the safest and 10 being the least safe based on what we currently know about ingredient toxicity. The good news is that in recent years, the number of mineral-based sunscreens has doubled, offering consumers the choice to skip chemical sunscreens and their questionable ingredients. You still need to do your homework, though. Even some of the highest-rated mineral sunscreens contain ingredients you may be better off avoiding, though choosing something with a 1 or 2 rating is still a huge improvement over the 7s, 8s, or even 10s on most drugstore shelves.
Here’s a summary of what to watch for when stocking up on sunscreen this summer.
Tips for Choosing a Safer Sunscreen
Avoid oxybenzone and vitamin A
As noted above, oxybenzone is a suspected endocrine disruptor. Retinyl palmitate, a synthetic form of vitamin A, is considered an anti-aging ingredient, though research suggests it actually “speeds the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight.” Avoid it in sunscreen as well as other personal care products applied before getting sun exposure.
In an effort to come up with formulations that leave your skin less white, manufacturers of mineral sunscreens have begun using smaller particles, many of which are small enough to be considered “nano” sized, less than 100 nanometers in diameter. More research is needed on the safety of nanoparticles, which may be able to penetrate the skin. The EWG continues to give good ratings to zinc oxide even if the particle size could be construed as nano, because amounts absorbed by the skin are small, and zinc in the bloodstream appears to pose little health risk. Look in the EWG ingredients listings for the words “ >100nm.”
Choose cream sunscreens over sprays
Generally speaking, sprays increase your risk of inhaling sunscreen ingredients. If you do choose a spray, don’t spray near your face. Keep in mind that some “sprays” (like Goddess Garden’s, carried by Eartheasy) are actually more of a pumped liquid than a propellant-based, aerosol and pose less of a hazard in this regard.
Choose zinc oxide over titanium oxide
Zinc oxide is considered safer and provides better UVA/UVB balance than titanium oxide.
Look for a sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection
According to the EWG’s report, UVA exposure is associated with higher risk of developing melanoma, yet many sunscreens focus on UVB protection to prevent sunburn.
Avoid sunscreens with an SPF over 50
Although high SPF sunscreens may offer more protection against sunburn, they don’t provide the same added protection against harmful UVA rays. People who use high SPF sunscreens tend to stay in the sun longer, thereby increasing the less visible damage to their skin. High SPF sunscreens also contain a greater concentration of sun-filtering chemicals, some of which have been linked to tissue damage, allergic reactions, and hormone disruption.
Check your favorite sunscreens
Find out how your sunscreen brands stack up using this year’s EWG database.
Sunscreen Alternatives for Sensitive Skin
Even some of the best-rated natural sunscreens may cause problems for extremely sensitive people. Some popular theories about and recipes for DIY sunscreens have gained traction on the internet, but experts warn that accurately gauging the SPF of homemade sunscreens can be difficult, and claims about the SPF of ingredients such as carrot seed oil lack supporting data. Other common oils like coconut provide so little additional SPF (and possibly no UVA protection), they should not be relied upon. Even if you seem to burn less readily when using one of these oils, you can’t be certain that you haven’t sustained unseen damage that may increase your cancer risk.
While mineral makeups may offer some protection, dermatologists warn that because coverage can be uneven, using these alone rather than in addition to sunscreen is unwise for prolonged sun exposure. Further, the EWG warns that powdered forms of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide may pose a risk for lung damage when inhaled and “strongly discourages” their use.
Though some research suggests that a diet rich in antioxidants can help prevent and repair sun damage, a healthy diet doesn’t mean you can bask in the strongest rays without additional protection.
But Don’t I Need Some Sun Exposure?
Interestingly, one of the suspected risk factors in skin cancer (as well as other types of cancer and numerous other health problems) is vitamin D deficiency, caused by too little sun exposure!
Research shows that outdoor workers actually have a lower incidence of melanoma than those who work indoors, and cancer rates in northern cities with less UV exposure are higher than in cities in latitudes with greater UV exposure. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that women who avoided sun exposure had nearly twice the risk of death of those who did not.
The Final Word
Sunscreen is just one of many things you should do to protect your skin this summer, and according to the EWG, it should be a last resort. Remember: your skin can still get damaged with sunscreen on. If you’re going to be outdoors for long periods of time, it’s better to seek out shade and wear protective clothing. Tightly-woven clothes and a good sun hat will protect your skin longer and more effectively.
For short periods of sun exposure, research suggests that skipping sunscreen altogether might be the best move for the sake of important vitamin D levels. When you do use sunscreen, do your research and pick one that’s not harmful to you or the planet.
- This Dermatologist Tells the Real Truth About What You’re Doing to Your Skin
- 4 Tips for Safe, Effective Sunscreen Use
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Downs, C.A. et al. Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Archives of Environmental Contamination Toxicology (2016) 70: 265.
Lindqvist PG et al. Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor for all-cause mortality: results from the MISS cohort. Journal of Internal Medicine, 2014; 276: 77–86.