Let’s talk about sunscreen!
Most people are aware of the damage caused by sun exposure, and many responsible adults actively work to limit their sun exposure by avoiding the sun between 10:00am and 4:00pm and by wearing sunscreen. However, are you aware that not all sunscreens are created equal?
All effective sunscreens fall into one of three categories: mineral, chemical, or both. Mineral sunscreens contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These white compounds occur in nature and are effective sunscreens because they reflect UVA and UVB rays away from the surface of the skin. Because the particles are so large, the body cannot absorb them and they do not produce any sort of systemic change in the body. Mineral sunscreens are considered completely safe by the FDA and are recommended for daily use.
Chemical sunscreens contain compounds such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and avobenzone. Unlike mineral sunscreens, chemical sunscreens absorb UV light and convert that energy into heat, which then dissipates from the skin. Chemical sunscreens are often favored by people with darker skin and cosmetic companies because they do not leave a “white cast” on the wearer, allowing for an increase in SPF without lightening skin tone.
While sunscreen use is undoubtedly important for human health, in recent years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has begun to raise awareness about the dangerous effects that some of these sunscreen ingredients can have on marine environments. All chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens that are formulated with nano-particles of titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide damage aquatic animals, algae, seaweed, and coral reefs. When people wear sunscreens into water or wash them off in the shower, a large percentage of these compounds will end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Interestingly, CNN recently reported that the FDA is starting to question the safety of chemical sunscreens on humans as well. While none of the compounds used in chemical sunscreens have been proven to be dangerous to humans, they also have not passed rigorous testing that shows them to be safe for people to wear regularly. Specifically, there are concerns that some of the chemicals may be disruptive to the endocrine system when used long term.
Where does this information put us as consumers? We need to balance the need to protect our bodies and the need to protect aquatic environments. Mineral sunscreens formulated without nano-particles are absolutely the safest for the environment; however, independent testing carried out by Consumer Reports demonstrates that these sunscreens do not offer as much protection as sunscreens which also contain chemical components. Purely chemical sunscreens are quite effective at protecting our skin from UV rays and do not leave a “white cast”, but we risk our waterways when we use them.
At the end of the day, each of us needs to weigh the risks involved with our behavior. Personally, I choose to skip the chemical sunscreens for daily use, but may occasionally use them if I know that I will be exposed to a lot of sun, need extra protection for my skin and won’t be near the water. The most important thing is that we think carefully about our choices and how they impact not only ourselves, but the world around us.
Reference material & Thank you, HMC: