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The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.
Last week, we talked about the sun and the UV rays hitting our skin every day, causing a chain reaction of events ranging from healthy vitamin D production to sunburns. Ideally, you want to avoid sun exposure during peak UV index hours of the day, but if you are outdoors, protect yourself! Today, we’re talking about sunscreens. So grab a bottle of sunscreen and read along!
For my family, organic sunscreen and skin care had kind of been the “last frontier”, mainly because I had prioritized reducing the amount of toxins we consumed and didn’t think too much about what went on my skin. Turns out, the skin will drink in toxins just as easily as your digestive system will absorb them. Studies have found sunscreen chemicals (like oxybenzone) in breast milk, showing that what gets on your skin will get into your bloodstream. To me, this is a big deal, especially since most of these chemicals mess with hormone balances, and I’m putting this on my children. I looked up which diseases can stem from hormone imbalances and then began to take this organic sunscreen thing a lot more seriously: Alzheimer’s, allergies, lupus, blood sugar irregularities (type II diabetes, hypoglycemia), breast cancer, PCOD, fertility complications, heart disease, migraines, endometriosis…and a whole lot more. Yikes.
Now, I strongly encourage people to make decisions out of logic and not out of fear. Truth is, in today’s world, it’s impossible to live 100% toxin-free. A reasonable goal is to reduce your exposure as much as possible, so that’s what I’m focusing on today: what’s in sunscreen, what ingredients to avoid, and how to spend your money on something that’s effective and low-toxin.
How Do Sunscreens Work? Which Ingredients Should I Avoid?
We all know the basics: you put on sunscreen to prevent sunburns. I didn’t know much more about the science of sunscreens before starting this research. Sunscreens work by either reflecting UV rays or absorbing them. There are two types of active ingredients in sunscreen: mineral filters or chemical filters.
Chemical Filter Sunscreens
Oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate: the most common active ingredients in a chemical filter sunscreen. A typical sunscreen will have about 3-6 of these ingredients. Grab a bottle of sunscreen and check out its active ingredients. I had a bottle of Banana Boat Sport SPF 30 Spray on hand, and it’s active ingredients were avobenzone, octocrylene, and oxybenzone. (Disclaimer: I keep this on hand to remove Sharpie marks around the house. Totally works.)
Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays. The chemicals absorb the UV rays, converting them into heat. Science-wise, I think this is pretty cool.
Avobenzone is the superstar in this group, the single most effective chemical filter and relatively safe (EWG Hazard Level 2) as it barely penetrates the skin. However, avobenzone alone is a total diva. It breaks down easily when exposed to sunlight and can also cause allergic reactions. To give avobenzone the support it needs to stay stable in sunlight, your chemical filter sunscreen will have second or third chemical.
The EWG (Environmental Working Group) specifically warns against oxybenzone. This chemical penetrates the skin easily, mimics estrogen, reduces sperm count in lab tests, and has been linked to endometriosis. It causes hormone disruption. It’s a major bad guy.
Octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene all pose a moderate toxicity concern because they penetrate the skin and can mess up hormone balances.
I’ve loved spray-on sunscreens with my kids, because they are easy to apply and give good coverage. Sadly, these spray-on products are also an easy way to inhale sunscreen and all its toxins. So, we’re saying goodbye to the spray bottles and to chemical filter sunscreens. Hello, mineral filter sunscreens!
Mineral Filter Sunscreens
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide: the two mineral filters. Remember those brightly colored hot pink or neon green nose sunscreens in the 80’s? Those were zinc oxide. They were very effective but were phased out in favor of invisible (chemical) sunscreens. Today, mineral filter sunscreens are making a strong comeback, now less visible and no longer chalky. For the most part, they apply easy and rub in just as invisibly as a chemical filter sunscreen.
Mineral filters work by reflecting UV rays so they never hit your skin at all.
The EWG gives mineral sunscreens great scores (low toxicity), because they don’t penetrate the skin and are very stable in sunlight. These are your best options.
Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have zero skin allergy concerns.
Caution: even though these mineral sunscreens are safe on your skin, they are not safe when inhaled, so skip the spray-on versions and opt for the creams and lotions instead.
Other Ingredients to Watch For:
Vitamin A (A.K.A. retinyl palmitate, retinol): this is an antioxidant that has been shown to slow aging…until its exposed to sunlight, and then it will speed up carcinogen development and the growth of skin tumors. Isn’t that the complete opposite of what you want a sunscreen to do? So if your skincare products contain retinyl palmitate or retinol, save those for indoors days or nighttime. This should be strongly avoided in your sunscreens (and other beauty products such as cosmetics and skincare).
Fragrance: Amy discussed “fragrance” and all its deceptions a few weeks ago. Stick to truly natural scents like essential oils. Lavender, citronella, clove, lemongrass, rosemary, tea tree, eucalyptus, and mint will also give you a bonus of repelling insects.
SPF and Broad-Spectrum Protection
Now that we’ve talked about ingredients, let’s talk about UV ray protection. SPF (sun protection factor) is a number usually ranging from 4-50. This number is an estimation of how long the product will protect your skin from UVB rays. For example, if you can normally be out in the sun for 10 minutes before burning, an SPF 15 will increase that time 15x, or 15 x 10 minutes = 150 minutes. An SPF of 30 would give 30x your normal protection, or 300 minutes. Of course, this is only true for however long the product actually stays on your skin and if you applied enough to begin with. If you are sweating, swimming, or otherwise active, the product will wear off more quickly. Note- this number also assumes you’re using 2mg of product per square centimeter of skin. Most people are using less than half of that, affecting how well your product is working.
Some research is advising consumers against sunscreens boasting SPF’s above 50. Why? The short answer is that they create a false sense of advanced protection. A sunscreen with SPF 30 will block about 98% of UVB rays; a SPF 50 sunscreen will block 99%. Not a statistically significant improvement, huh? The thorough and accurate answer comes from EWG.
SPF is only part of the sun protection formula. Both UVB and UVA rays will cause skin damage…that’s where “broad spectrum” protection becomes important. A broad spectrum sunscreen will protect against UVA rays in addition to UVB. Make sure your sunscreen has broad spectrum protection!
Slightly off topic, let’s take a minute to discuss UPF. I’ve seen labels like “UPF 50” on sun protective clothing, like rash guards. This “UV Protection Factor” tells you how much protection a garment offers from UV rays (both UVA and UVB). The UPF ratings are different from SPF ratings. A UPF of 50, for example, means that your fabric only lets in 1/50th (2%) of UV rays, this is considered excellent protection and UPF 50+ is the maximum UPF that any fabric can boast. For comparison, a plain cotton t-shirt will offer about UPF 5-8, letting in about 20% of all UV rays.
Shopping Around and Making It Yourself
Honestly, when it comes to buying sunscreen, the EWG should be your first stop. This informational site independently researches and rates products, reporting their hazard levels on a scale of 0-10. You can search specific products or refer to their Best Picks guide for recommendations. You can even download their free app to reference on the go! Based on EWG’s recommendations and what was on sale at Target, I went with All Terrain AquaSport for our recent beach trip (used in conjunction with our rash guards). Happy to report that we all came home sunburn-free. One 3.0 oz bottle was plenty for my family of 5 for 4 days.
I didn’t really mind shelling out the $8+ for a bottle of sunscreen for our trip, but I’m not sure my budget would love $2.70 per ounce as a full time solution. In the near future, I’ll be making up a batch of this homemade organic sunscreen recipe. It’s a blend of zinc oxide and some healthful oils, specifically coconut oil, which also does a lovely job of neutralizing free radicals on the skin. I’ve never tried this before, so I can’t promise you’ll love it, but I think it’s worth a try! Do you have a homemade sunscreen you’ve tried and liked?
So, after all this sun and sunscreen talk, what are you thinking? Sticking with what you’ve used before? Trying something new? Any other ideas you’d like to add? Questions?
Next week, we’re getting out of the sun and talking about mosquitoes! How insect repellents work, which ingredients to avoid, and some more natural options that you will love.