Stay Safe This Summer: What You Need to Know About Sunscreen

June 14, 2018

Stay Safe This Summer: What You Need to Know About Sunscreen

 Sunscreen has been making waves lately.

Hawaii just passed a bill that would ban the sell of sunscreens containing chemicals that are contributing to the damage of coral reefs and ocean life.

Under the bill, the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are used in more than 3,500 of the world's most popular sunscreen products, would be prohibited in Hawaii.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing...

Because avoiding these chemicals can help keep you safe as well as protect the reefs.

Your Sunscreen May Not Be As Safe As You Think

The Environmental Working Group investigated nearly 900 beach and sport sunscreens and found that nearly 3/4 of the products examined offered inferior sun protection or contained worrisome ingredients that can harm skin and body. 

What do you typically look at when you choose a sunscreen?

  • Is it a name brand that you've used for years?
  • The highest SPF you can find?

You may be surprised to find out that the sunscreen you've been selecting has the potential to do more harm than good -- in other words, your sunscreen may not be safe.

Big Name Brands Aren't Always Safer

Forty-six products marketed as children's sunscreens earned an EWG sunscreen safety rating of 7 -10, the worst scores for products in this year's EWG sunscreen guide. And some of those products came from the biggest brand names.

(See the entire list of the worst scoring sunscreens for kids.)

Choosing a sunscreen because you recognize the brand name or because it's one that you've used for years doesn't mean it's a safe bet.

Higher SPFs Aren't Always Better

People often mistakenly believe that a higher SPF means better protection and more time out in the sun. In reality, higher SPFs offer marginally better protection and are often misused.

The FDA has concluded that anything above an SPF50 is "inherently misleading" while European, Japanese, and Canadian regulators cap SPFs at 50.

Here's why:

Properly applied SPF50 sunscreen blocks 98% of UVB rays; SPF100 blocks 99%. The difference is +1% additional protection. But most consumers mistakingly think that choosing a SPF100 would give them twice the protection compared to an SPF50.

A sunscreen's SPF rating has little to do with how it blocks UVA rays - associated with higher risks of melanoma. Instead SPF ratings have to do with blocking UVB rays, which are the primary cause of sunburns and non-melanoma skin cancers. High SPF ratings don't mean the product has a good balance of protection between ultraviolet A and B rays.

The biggest danger of high SPF sunscreens is that consumers misuse them.

Research has shown that high SPF products lull users into a false sense of security and lead them to stay out in the sun longer. As a result, they often get as many sunburns and damaging UVA exposure as non-protected sunbathers.

Lastly, high SPF sunscreens often have higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals which can pose health risks and allergic skin reactions when applied to the skin.

The Dangers of Oxybenzone and Other Sunscreen Chemicals

Sunscreen Chemicals Applied TO Your Body Get IN Your Body

Like other personal care products such as moisturizing lotions, sunscreens are applied to your body and absorb into your skin. Unlike other personal care products, sunscreens may be reapplied multiple times during the day during hot summer months or used all over your body -- from the tips of your ears to the bottom of your toes. 

Sunscreens commonly include "penetration enhancing" ingredients that help the products adhere to your skin, meaning many sunscreen ingredients are absorbed into the skin and can be measured in samples of blood, urine, and breastmilk. 

Sunscreens are available in two forms:

  • Chemical sunscreens which are absorbed into your skin and then absorb UV rays
  • Mineral sunscreens which scatter or block UV rays (also known as physical sunscreens)

The most common sunscreens on the market use chemical filters to protect skin, and the most widely used chemical found in these sunscreens is oxybenzone.

Why you should be concerned about oxybenzone:

  • Oxybenzone has been found in 65% of non-mineral sunscreens, and the CDC has detected oxybenzone in 96% of the American population. 
  • Oxybenzone has been found in studies to be a hormone disruptor -- linked to altered reproductive and thyroid hormones. Oxybenzone can also cause allergic skin reactions. 

And this chemical sunscreen doesn't just pose a risk for your health:

According to NPR, a 2015 study of coral reefs in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Israel determined oxybenzone "leaches the coral of its nutrients and bleaches it white. It can also disrupt the development of fish and other wildlife." Even a small drop is enough to damage delicate corals.

Inactive Ingredients: Far From Safe

Inactive ingredients in chemical sunscreens can pose just as many health risks as the active ingredients. Methylisothiazolinone, a chemical preservative found in 94% of sunscreens on the market, was named by the American Contact Dermatitis Society as the "allergen of the year" in 2013.

Since 2015, the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded that no concentration of methylisothiazolinone could be considered safe in leave-in cosmetics, but the ingredient is legal here in the US.

Luckily, there is a safer alternative!

Mineral Sunscreens Offer Safer Sun Protection

Mineral sunscreens use physical organic compounds, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, to physically block ultraviolet rays.

Mineral sunscreens tend to score highly with the Environmental Working Group because they provide strong sun protection with few health concerns.

Zinc oxide is the EWG's top choice for sun protection.

Zinc offers strong protection against UVA rays, greater than titanium dioxide and chemical sunscreens. 

Mineral sunscreens have doubled in popularity over the past ten years as more people begin to understand the safety benefits of choosing mineral over chemical sun filters.

As a result, they're easier to find the formulations are improving. (You don't have to look like a 1970-s era lifeguard with a thick layer of white chalky goo on your nose if you choose a zinc-based sunscreen today.)

Many mineral sunscreens are also formulated with natural and certified organic inactive ingredients, as well.

Choose Better this Summer

If you've been relying on the same old, brand-name sunscreens that you've bought for years, it may be time to do better. Instead of choosing a sunscreen based on the SPF or a recognizable name on the bottle, look at the ingredient list instead.

Choose mineral sunscreens that protect skin with a natural, physical sunblock. Don't rely on high SPFs to protect you against sunburn. And avoid chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate. When you choose a better sunscreen it's better for you and better for the environment. And that's a win-win.

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