Did you ever use baby oil and iodine on your skin? I did. It was the seventies. That’s my excuse. I also used Coppertone (I can remember that scent after all these years!). These were my go-to choices when I was in the sun. Getting that rich tan was my goal back then. Inevitably I would burn. When I got home, I would find an old washcloth, soak it in tea and put it on top of my burn to help soothe my pain and ‘turn my burn into a tan’. Let me tell you, I didn’t always make the best choices for my skin. In my teens and early twenties, skin cancer was not on my mind. I wasn’t thinking about what my skin would look like decades later. And I paid the price.
I spent my time between a Southern California beach and the Arizona desert. I know sun. And salt water, sand and sunburn. I have blonde hair and blue eyes, which makes me more vulnerable to sun damage than someone who is naturally much darker.
One thing that is scary about over exposure to the sun’s rays… It can catch up with you years later. I know. I’ve had a skin cancer scare and I now get examined (as we all should) every year by a dermatologist. In addition, I’ve had laser treatments on my skin to help remove hyperpigmentation (darker patches) that showed up as a result of my early years of fun in the sun.
SUN = GOOD, RIGHT?
Time in the sun can stimulate our bodies to provide a natural source of vitamin D. It can help to uplift our mood. For many, the sun supports healing (especially when combined with breathing in salty air and listening to the sound of crashing waves). It can be soothing. That’s the good. Sun exposure can accelerate the effects of aging, cause premature wrinkles and skin cancer. That’s the bad. But, did you know that sunscreens can be dangerous? Wait! Weren’t we told that sunscreens are necessary? Yes. But, not all sunscreens are created equal. Sunscreens can threaten our health and the environment. That’s the ugly. We’ve been told that sunscreen is vital to protecting our skin, yet there is more to the story that needs to be told.
SUNTANS WEREN’T ALWAYS COOL
We have Coco Chanel to thank for making suntans “cool”. She sunned on a yacht back in the 1920s and made it fashionable to have a tan. Prior to that, having tanned skin wasn’t a trend. In fact, if you had any color on your skin (perhaps with the exception of rosy cheeks), it was a sign that you were part of the “working class” (physical laborers who spent hours outside). The upper class didn’t spend time in the sun unless they were “protected” by a parasol (umbrella to the rest of us) or a large brimmed hat. “A milky skin seemed a sure sign of aristocracy.” I’ve always thought it would be nice to make the pale-skinned look popular again. If only because it would be healthier and dermatologists would have less to do. My Irish and Scottish ancestors might agree.
SUNSCREENS, UVB AND UVA
Sunscreens act by absorbing short-wave ultraviolet light (UVB) that are responsible for sunburns. Well, there are UVB waves, but there are also (UVA) waves. UVA waves are long-wave ultraviolet radiation. UVA waves are the radiation that break down the protein and collagen (think plump, full lips) and are responsible for the aging look (wrinkles and sun spots). It also may contribute to the dangerous skin cancer malignant melanoma.
Because UVB rays give you sunburn, protection from them keeps sunburns and the pain associated with them away. UVB rays also play a role in skin aging and skin cancer. One thing to know about UVB rays is they are less prevalent during the winter, mornings and evenings. Unlike UVB, UVA rays are common throughout the year and at all times of the day. They actually account for 95% of the UV radiation that reaches earth. Here’s a UVA, UVB breakdown…
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN UVA & UVB RAYS
WHAT IS SPF?
SPF, short for SUN PROTECTION FACTOR, was created (1962) as an international standard to gauge how much protection products use to protect you from the sun. The higher the SPF = the higher the level of protection. For example, SPF 35 means you can remain in the sun thirty-five times longer by using that product than you can without it.
IS SPF MISLEADING?
Dr. Epstein points out in TOXIC BEAUTY, that SPF comforts us, but it is misleading. Several problems exist with relying on SPF to protect us. One, that when we sweat or swim the product loses its efficacy. Two, few people apply the product in the same manner as it was tested in a lab. They just don’t apply enough product. He says that you can count on having 2 hours, max, of protection from a sunscreen. SPF on its own only measures protection from UVB rays, not UVA rays.
Here’s the theory: Because sunscreens protect us from getting sunburned (UVB), we stay out in the sun longer. When we do, we are still being exposed to the UVA that go into the deeper layers of the skin. Did you know malignant melanoma is the fastest rising cancer in the world?
ONLY 15 MINUTES?
Yes, we’ve all heard about getting our vitamin D from the sun. But, did you know we only require about 15 minutes of time in the sun? That’s it. I don’t know about you… But, I distinctly recall spending most all day at the beach as a teenager. We would ride bikes on the boardwalk. And when I was in the Arizona sun… I continued to spray down my body with cool water when I wasn’t in the pool or I would take breaks and go inside. I was outside for more than 15 minutes!
As of 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started a new sunscreen labeling process that went into full effect in 2013. Sunscreens were now to be labeled “Broad Spectrum”. If you’re not using a broad spectrum sunscreen, by the way, you’re not getting full sun protection.
WHAT DOES “BROAD SPECTRUM” MEAN?
The suns rays come in three varieties: UVA, UVB and UVC. You don’t have to worry about UVC. As for UVA and UVB rays, you need protection from both and in the U.S. only sunscreens labeled broad spectrum give that. It’s important to look for “Broad Spectrum” on a sunblock’s label to make sure you are getting UVA protection and consider the SPF rating from there.
To be labeled “broad spectrum” the FDA mandates at least an SPF 15 rating.
MINERAL VS. CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS
Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are the ONLY FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients that are minerals. Mineral sunscreens and chemical sunscreens work differently.
Mineral Sunscreens (Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide):
Chemical Sunscreens (sometimes called “classic” or “organic” sunscreens):
FALSE CLAIMS BY SUNSCREEN MANUFACTURERS
Here’s the part where one begins to get angry… The Environmental Working Group did an analysis on 868 sunscreen products (sounds like a fun job) and found that 83% had ingredients that raised health concerns. Here’s some of the claims:
You may not know that manufacturers can list ingredients as “inactive” when they’re UNAPPROVED sunscreens! Manufacturers have gotten savvy when it comes to making false and misleading claims. When ingredients are absorbed into the skin, they generate FREE RADICALS which interact and damage molecules in the skin. This results in skin damage, aging, and risks of skin cancer.
Oxydibenzoylmethane (avobenzone), (a sunscreen allowed in Europe), is an ingredient released into the body as free radicals, but degrades rapidly in sunlight becoming ineffective in one hour. So its safety is questionable.
Another huge problem with sunscreens is that many are “hormone disrupters”. Hormone disrupters are ingredients that can cause cancer and other problems. The following sunscreen chemicals showed an increase in uterine growth in lab tests:
OXYBENZONE: ESTROGEN-LIKE HORMONE
Another “hormone disrupter” commonly found in sunscreens that acts similar to estrogen is: Oxybenzone. It also causes problems for fish. Oxybenzone was found in the bodies of 97 percent of 2,500 U.S. residents who were tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2005. These chemicals were found in breastmilk, so babies are receiving estrogen-like hormones. To be more specific, male babies are getting fed female hormones. And sunscreen ingredients are in beauty products, such as lipsticks, creams, lotions, etc.
What are “nanoparticles” and why are they in sun protection products? Nanotechnology is the shrinking of chemical particles to 100 nanometers wide (about 1/100,000 of the thickness of a sheet of paper). These nanoparticles penetrate human skin more rapidly and more deeply than was possible in the past. Cosmetic manufacturers often add “penetration enhancers” – ingredients to their products – which includes sunscreens and sunblocks, to decrease skin resistance and drive chemicals deeper into the skin. Penetration enhancers leave the top layers of skin vulnerable.
COMMONLY USED PENETRATION ENHANCERS:
ZINC OXIDE AND TITANIUM DIOXIDE AS NANOPARTICLES?
When I was a teen hanging out at the beach, it was common to see surfers with a thick layer of white zinc oxide on their noses. Their hair was naturally bleached from the salt water and the rest of their skin was a golden shade of brown. But, today, having white cream slathered on your nose isn’t very popular.
By increasing the body’s absorption of these chemicals the products will last longer and be more effective. Even titanium dioxide or zinc oxide can be reduced in size, making them transparent (losing its usual white color). This is attractive to consumers because they no longer have to wear white cream on their faces. Since these two ingredients are regarded as “safe”, it is assumed they are still safe as “nanoparticles”. But are they?
Sitting on top of the skin, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are harmless. Penetrating the skin poses unknown health risks, including accumulation in the brain, cells, blood and nerves. They may reach the lungs and cause inflammation or move to other organs. Free radicals don’t just attack the nanoparticles; they can also damage neighboring cells. The result is oxidative stress in the brain, which is thought to be a cause of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide might also be toxic to skin, bone and liver cells. Not good.
MISLEADING CONSUMERS IS REALLY NOT A GOOD THING
A July 2007 issue of Consumer Reports reported that after testing nineteen sunscreen products, (of which eight contained nanoparticles), only ONE disclosed their presence on the label!
Even when products are marketed as containing only “natural” ingredients, there could be nanoparticles. One manufacturer advertised “natural zinc oxide in a new patented transparent form – microfine” on the ingredient list. It was a nanoparticle ingredient.
HEY! NATURE PROVIDES SUNSCREEN, TOO!
There are natural active ingredients that protect body cells from UV radiation damage rather than blocking or absorbing the rays. They shouldn’t be used as a “substitute” for sunscreen, but they can be beneficial. Some examples of these are:
A LIST OF TOXIC INGREDIENTS IN SUNSCREENS AND SUNBLOCKS
SUNSCREEN PRODUCTS I PERSONALLY RECOMMEND
The use of physical blockers – Mineral Sunscreens – Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide, that sit on top of the skin – and are not nanoparticles – provide BROAD SPECTRUM coverage of UVA and UVB protection. Use these and reapply often.
I hope this information has been helpful to you in your search for the right sunscreen and sunblock products to use on your skin. The material I provided in this blog is in no way completely comprehensive or an exhaustive list of healthy product options. If I missed anything you think should be mentioned, feel free to comment below. If you have any products you absolutely love, please tell me about them! I welcome feedback and I love to try products that others love, too. And, I hope you’ll follow my blog as I continue to share healthy beauty options.