If skin cancer is not on your mind as you are out and about enjoying a day of sun filled activities, it should be. “One in every three cancers diagnosed is a skin cancer and, according to Skin Cancer Foundation Statistics, one in every five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.”1 While sun exposure is unavoidable, using a good quality sunscreen will help to mitigate the ill effects of excessive sun exposure.
However, not all sunscreens are equally safe and effective – which might include that “best sunscreen” you own or have seen being sold and advertised everywhere. While most of us do understand why using sunscreen is important, equally important is knowing which type of sunscreen to use. There are two types of sunscreens – chemical and physical; and as we will discuss in more detail below physical (mineral-based) sunscreen is considered your safer choice.2
Why Do We Need to Use Sunscreen?
When ultraviolet (UV) radiation penetrates our skin, it creates molecules (called free radicals) which are basically unstable atoms that cause damage to our skin resulting in premature aging (including discoloration, fine lines, and wrinkles). Chronic UV exposure can lead to skin cancer by damaging the DNA of your skin cells as well as depleting the skin’s natural ability to self-repair. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that between 2 and 3 million people develop non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 develop melanoma skin cancers each year. Skin cancers make up 1/3 of every new cancer diagnosed and the incidence continues to rise as our planet’s atmosphere loses its ability to filter UV radiation. Moreover, studies found that UV radiation from the sun accounts for 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers, 86% of melanoma skin cancers, and 90% of skin aging.3
If you participate in lots of recreational sun activities and have a history of sunburn you are likely more at risk of contracting skin cancer.
Chemical vs Physical Sunscreens
There are two main types of sunscreens: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens (aka organic sunscreens) are like sponges. They protect your skin by absorbing UV rays and then converting the rays into heat, which are released from the skin. Physical sunscreens (aka mineral sunscreens) are like mirrors. They protect your skin by physically blocking and reflecting UV rays, and remain on the surface of the skin.
Chemical sunscreens typically contain any or a mix of these active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate. The active ingredients in physical sunscreens are typically made up of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. You know that white chalky residue left behind after using some sunscreens? That’s the work of physical sunscreens. Since this white residue is not desirable, especially in darker-skinned individuals, clear chemical sunscreens were developed. However, using chemical sunscreens leaves us with the risk of significant toxic exposure.
Why Chemical Sunscreens Are Not Your Safest Choice?
- Harms marine life: Oxybenzone poses a serious threat to marine life which includes bleaching coral reefs, and altering fertility and growth in a variety of fish and plants. Effective January 2021, Hawaii will ban the use of all sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.
- Induces skin irritation and allergies: Affects especially those who have a history of eczema or other allergies, or sensitive skin or rosacea, or young children are more at risk.
- Lowers testosterone levels: In a data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers found that adolescent boys had significantly lower total testosterone levels with higher oxybenzone exposure.
- Enhances the ability of other chemicals to penetrate your skin: Toxic herbicides, pesticides, and insect repellant were more absorbent in the presence of oxybenzone, which is especially a huge concern for agricultural workers.
- Causes abnormal development during pregnancy: Women with higher levels of oxybenzone had shorter pregnancies and reported abnormal baby birth weights.
- Toxins are passed onto the baby: Research at the University of Zurich found chemicals in 85% of breast milk samples. Chemicals can be found in breast milk for up to two days after just a single application.
- Contributes to male infertility: Oxybenzone creates a progesterone-like effect (a female hormone) and reduces sperm count.
Your digestive tract can filter out some toxins but not oxybenzone. Oxybenzone bypasses your digestive tract and large amounts are absorbed into your bloodstream through your skin. To give you an idea about how widespread oxybenzone is, the CDC found that more than 96% of Americans had the presence of oxybenzone in their system. The CDC also found 97% of 2,517 urine samples tested in 2008 had oxybenzone. A study done by the FDA found that oxybenzone concentrations were 400-500 times higher than the safety threshold in a matter of a few days of using sunscreens with oxybenzone.
The Environment Working Group (EWG) – a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, supports the movement to remove chemical sunscreens off the shelves of our stores. Did you know that some of the sunscreens sold by popular brands you’ve seen in your local store, or have used, contain oxybenzone? This is why it is important to carefully review the the ingredients in your sunscreen as some brands may contain more or less toxic substances. However, a safer option for you are the two physical filters in physical sunscreens that EWG has long advocated for: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Are Physical Sunscreens safer?
Only two sunscreen ingredients are known to be safe – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Zinc oxide is what is known as the gold standard. There are two types of UV light that we need to protect our skin from – UVA and UVB rays. The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) indicates that we are being protected from UVB rays but not UVA rays (which actually penetrates deeper into the skin and cause most of the skin damage). The term “broad-spectrum” protection indicates that you are protected from both UVA and UVB rays. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide do not readily penetrate the skin as chemical sunscreen ingredients do. A study tested volunteers who applied sunscreen twice a day and found that less than 0.01% of zinc entered their bloodstream. Unlike chemical sunscreens that penetrate into your skin, physical sunscreens sit on the surface of the skin.
Physical sunscreens also tend to be less irritating on the skin so they are a better option for children or for those who have sensitive skin conditions. A downside of using mineral sunscreen is the infamous white chalky residue it leaves behind. However, modern versions of physical sunscreens use nano-sized particles or tinted colors that make the white residue less visible. It’s important to note that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be unsafe if inhaled and as such, we do not recommend the use of spray-type physical sunscreens. Instead, use lotion or cream-based physical sunscreen. Overall, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are your safer options for UVA/UVB protection.
How darker skin can avoid that white chalky look
- Smooth the sunscreen over your skin and then rub it in thoroughly. Follow by patting your skin to reduce any streaky appearance.
- If you wear makeup, try mixing a bit of foundation into your sunscreen before application. You can also apply loose or pressed powder on top of the sunscreen.
- Give your sunscreen time to absorb and blend into your skin after application before using your other facial products.
- Vivier Sheer Broad Spectrum SPF 45
- Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel Sunscreen SPF 30
- Dermalogica Prisma Protect SPF 30
Removing Sunscreen from your skin
Physical sunscreen requires a bit more effort to wash off at the end of the day. To wash off this type of sunscreen properly, first use a cleansing oil, cleansing water, or cleansing lotion to lift up and dissolve the micronized zinc oxide or titanium oxide powders that are inside your pores. Then wash again with a cleanser to remove the residue properly.
And in Closing ...
While there is merit to using any type of sunscreen for protection against harmful UVA/UVB radiation, with all the risks related to the use of chemical sunscreens it’s now even more important to consider switching to a physical sunscreen. Especially if you are planning an Hawaiian vacation in 2021 or after 😃.