With the weather warming up and the sun peeking out more, it’s a great time to start thinking about sunscreen and how to protect your skin in a healthy way.
I’ve got a few tips for you before you go out and buy a bottle!
Tip #1 Get some sun
Give your body a chance to make some of that good ol’ vitamin D by spending a few minutes in the sun sans sunscreen.
Studies vary on just how much vitamin D you can make in 15 minutes, as it depends on the season, your geographical location, and your skin type.
But it’s safe to say that we need time in the sun without sunscreen in order to boost our vitamin D levels naturally.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so it is stored in the body (unlike water soluble Vitamin C that passes right through if we don’t need it or we take too much).
Getting into the sun in the summer helps you maintain better vitamin D levels throughout the winter! Super cool!
We know that vitamin D is important for bone health, mood, and can help to prevent cancer, among other things.
So get out there and give yourself little doses every day.
Often I’ll be in the sun for 30 - 60 minutes before I apply sunscreen on a sunny day in the summer.
But I also live in Seattle where the sun isn’t as strong, and i have a skin type that doesn’t immediately burn (though it doesn’t take a lot).
Experiment and find what works for you! Shoot for a mininum of 15 minutes, but again, let your own experience with how fast you burn dictate this!
But what about skin cancer?
In my clinical experience, skin cancer is much more multifactorial than sun exposure.
Not everyone who spends a lot of time in the sun gets skin cancer.
And some folks who don’t spend much time at all in the sun get skin cancer.
It’s a much bigger picture that includes diet and lifestyle factors.
So if you’re concerned, I’d recommend seeing a naturopathic doctor to help you work on your overall health.
Prevention in the form of comprehensive, natural health support is a great way to minimize your skin cancer risk.
Tip #2 Avoid chemical block sunscreens
Chemical block sunscreens are ubiquitous and harmful to our health and to the environment.
All the major brands, like CopperTone and Banana Boat, use chemical blocks.
These sunscreens work as a result of chemicals that absorb ultraviolet radiation and convert it into a small amount of heat.
That might sound pretty benign.
But there are several concerning compounds in chemical block sunscreens, including oxybenzone, avobenzone and octocrylene.
A new study by the FDA revealed that we readily absorb these chemicals into our bloodstreams.
(The full article about the study here is worth the read.)
To this, I would like to say: DUH.
Our skin is our largest organ and it’s connected to the rest of our body!
Of course what we put on it matters!
So why is this news?
The FDA has not fully evaluated the health implications of chemical block sunscreens because of this previous assumption that not much got absorbed.
In their comprehensive article on sunscreen safety, The Environmental Working Group says:
“When the FDA began to consider sunscreen safety, it grandfathered in active ingredients from the late 1970s without reviewing the evidence of their potential hazards. In February 2019, the agency released its final draft sunscreens monograph, which contains insufficient health and safety data to designate 12 of the 16 sunscreen filters allowed for use in the U.S. as generally recognized as safe and effective, or GRASE. These 12 ingredients include some of the most commonly used UV filters, including oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone. According to the agency, “nearly all of these sunscreen active ingredients … have limited or no data characterizing their absorption.”
The new word on the street, directly from the study:
“In this preliminary study involving healthy volunteers, application of 4 commercially available sunscreens under maximal use conditions resulted in plasma concentrations that exceeded the threshold established by the FDA for potentially waiving some nonclinical toxicology studies for sunscreens.”
What’s super concerning is that oxybenzone and other UV filtering chemicals have been implicated in hormone disruption in animal studies.
"These molecules are chemical rings, essentially, and they absorb light," says Dr. Kanade Shinkai, a dermatologist with the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying the new study. "Chemical rings are also the fundamental basis for a lot of hormones, and chemical rings tend to enter cells."
This is the case for many, many modern chemicals in fragrances, plastics, personal care products and more.
Another level of concern lies in its environmental impact.
Oxybenzone has been linked to coral reef disruption and death.
Recently, Hawaii has tried to outlaw oxybenzone as a source of SPF (sun protection factor).
The FDA has set a November 2019 deadline for sunscreen manufacturers to provide safety data on their products, including evaluations of systemic absorption, the risk of cancer from the chemicals, and their effect on reproductive health.
It’s great these chemicals are finally being evaluated. But it’s pretty clear already that they are not safe.
For the health of your family and the planet, avoid chemical block sunscreens.
Tip #3 Use mineral block sunscreens
Don’t worry, an alternative to chemical block sunscreens does exist!
Enter mineral block sunscreens!
They do exactly what their name suggests: they block UV rays with minerals, typically zinc or titanium.
Zinc and titanium act as a physical barrier to UV light by scattering the rays.
These sunscreens historically leave a more ghostly appearance to the skin, but in recent years they’ve become less chalky and easier to apply.
There’s one thing you need to be aware of with mineral sunscreens: nanoparticles.
Some companies use titanium and zinc nanoparticles -- or super, super small mineral complexes -- to create a better physical block.
Smaller particles = less gaps = better protection.
The jury is still out on that.
These nanoparticles, like the organic compounds in chemical sunscreens, have yet to be studied adequately.
Preliminary research has shown that workers exposed to larger quantities of it can develop health issues, especially in their lungs.
It is assumed that mineral block compounds do not enter the bloodstream and therefore are safe.
I do think the potential health effects will be less significant than those organic chemicals already shown to disrupt hormones and negatively impact ocean life, but there is concern until they’ve been studied.
Since the nanoparticles are extra super tiny, it is much more likely they will be absorbed into our bodies on a larger scale than regularly sized titanium and zinc oxide.
And it’s unclear what the repercussions are.
So where does that leave us?
Chemical block sunscreens are likely harmful to human health and the environment, as preliminary evidence has shown. More research is needed.
Mineral block sunscreens also need to be studied more in-depth, but because they work as a physical barrier, they have a very different mechanism of action (and what I think of as a much less harmful one) than chemical block sunscreens.
They don’t tend to last as long and they are not as effective at filtering out UV light as chemical blocks, so you likely need to reapply more often.
But that’s a small price to pay for avoiding gross chemicals that absorb into your body, disrupt your hormones, and can potentially cause cancer.
How do you tell the difference between mineral and chemical block sunscreens?
#1: Find the active ingredient
It’s usually in a box on the back of the bottle.
If the active ingredient says zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, you’re good to go!
Here’s the catch: these should be the ONLY active ingredients listed.
If there are other things listed, you can bet those are the chemical blocks that you don’t want in your system.
Many sunscreens mix mineral and chemical blocks.
Embarrassingly, until I wrote this article, I didn’t realize that my favorite sunscreen included organic chemical blocks :(.
I had used Alba mineral sunscreen products before and liked them.
In general, I thought they tended to keep their products pretty free of gross stuff.
So I decided to try their “very emollient sunscreen”, assuming it would be the same, just with better spreading ability from the extra lotion-like feel.
It definitely goes on easier, but when I finally took the time to read the label, I realized that titanium dioxide was just one of four sunblock ingredients and was included in a tiny amount compared to the others.
It doesn’t contain oxybenzone, which is great, but we still don’t know the safety of these other chemical blocks.
Also important to note that I didn’t realize before writing this post: Alba also does not clearly state anywhere on any of its products that the mineral blocks used are not nanoparticles.
So until the safety results on those little guys are in, I’ll be saying goodbye to Alba.
This is what’s SO frustrating as a consumer.
How do you figure out which brands are *actually* natural/organic/have your best interests in mind?
Which consistently pick health and safety over profits?
And do they do this for all of their products or just some of them?
You have to be super educated about what you do and don’t want in your products.
#2: Look for “mineral” in the name
As a helpful sorting-through-tons-of-options clue, it should say “mineral” or “mineral block” on the front of the bottle or box.
But you still have to read the active ingredients to make sure you’re getting a mineral block only sunscreen.
As I mentioned above, sometimes names and brands aren’t exactly what you expect.
Ok, so point me in the right direction here, Dr. Liz.
My product recommendations:
Garden Goddess -- pretty easy to apply, no nanoparticles or chemical blocks. It does tend to separate, so just squish things back together in the tube if it’s been sitting for awhile.
Badger -- a little harder to apply, but also a very widely available option. No nanoparticles or chemical blocks.
Think Baby -- for your little ones!
Enjoy the sun and protect yourself in a healthy way!
More reading material:
Neurotoxic effect of active ingredients in sunscreen products, a contemporary review
Review of environmental effects of oxybenzone and other sunscreen active ingredients
Dermatological and environmental toxicology impact of sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone/benzophenone-3
The Trouble with Sunscreen Chemicals