There is a lot of controversy about chemical-laden products, including the chemicals in sunscreen. Is there any reason to be worried about what we’re using to protect us from the sun? Are we using harmful sunscreen chemicals on our skin?
But first thing's first:
It's important to address what we call a ‘chemical’. There is maybe a misconception that all chemicals are harmful – they’re not! We (and everything around us) are made up of them, so nothing is truly "chemical free". So instead of searching for a chemical free sunscreen, look for one that is free from harmful chemicals;
So to be clear, when we talk about ‘chemical’ sun screens, we mean the synthetic chemical filters (like oxybenzone) rather than the physical or mineral filters (like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide).
So are all sun screen ingredients safe?
The short answer is:
Alarm bells have begun ringing across the scientific world the past few years about the safety of the chemical sunscreens – those that work by absorbing the sun’s UV rays (see above).
A growing body of research suggests that chemical sunscreens might cause a variety of problems - from skin allergies (skin conditions such as eczema and sunscreen don't tend to mix well!) to environmental damage and reproductive issues.
In other words, just when we think we’re using them to help keep our skin safe, we do need to be more aware that sunscreen might be negatively impacting our health!
To break it down:
Laid out on the table below is a list of sunscreen ingredients that you might want to avoid. and that can be used as a quick and easy guide when you’re choosing a sun cream:
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Chemical sunscreens have been linked to reproductive issues because of the hormone-mimicng effects of some of the ingredients. The chemical homosalate, for example, has been linked to interference with sperm function (Rehfeld 2016). Niels Skakkebaek, a senior investigator in the study of the effects of homosalate says, ”These results are of concern and might explain in part why unexplained infertility is so prevalent”.
Using synthetic/chemical sunscreen during pregnancy is also a cause for concern. When chemicals or products are tested for their safety, they aren’t tested on pregnant women due to it being deemed unethical; however the ethical considerations of allowing a potentially harmful product to be used on pregnant women are swept to the side. Given the data that shows certain synthetic chemicals affect our reproductive health in other ways, it might be a good idea to avoid sunscreens with controversial chemicals and opt for something safer.
The reason we choose to apply sunscreen is to protect our skin, but some chemicals such as cinoxate and octocryelne are linked to skin irritation and photosensitivity (a reddening of the skin resembling sun burn) – a little ironic! Since 1930, there has also been a 1,800% increase in malignant melanomas alongside the use of sunscreen rising exponentially. Considering we are spending more time indoors than ever, this is not a statistic to be ignored and it might be time for us to take more of an interest in what lurks in our skincare products. If you are suffering with a skin condition, such as eczema, the best sun cream to use is one that is organic and as natural as possible.
If a chemical is photo-unstable, it means its chemical structure can be changed under the influence of light, so sunscreen chemicals especially should be photostable. Avobenzone, a commonly used ingredient in synthetic sunscreen which, when broken down, can become unstable and toxic.
Synthetic sunscreen chemicals aren’t linked to health concerns alone. Ingredients like Oxybenzone are also linked to negative environmental impacts including pollution, where evidence has revealed damage to coral reefs when this chemical is washed off of swimmers (NOAA 2015). But how much of this really ends up on coral reefs? Well, actually, up to 14,000 tones...each year.
So what about the physical / mineral sunscreens like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide?
Thankfully, physical sunscreens provide both effective sun protection and aren’t associated with the health concerns above.
In our opinion, physical ingredients (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are the safest sunscreens to choose from. Both of these minerals sit on top of the skin and reflect the UV rays away, rather than the chemical alternatives that absorb the UV light.
Zinc oxide in particular has a number of health benefits attributed to it, including soothing skin irritation and is great for coping with sunburn, it’s non comedogenic (it won’t clog your pores and contribute to acne), it’s antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and has been shown to improve elasticity in skin which improves the appearance of wrinkles.
Zinc oxide is considered to be a better form of sun protection than titanium dioxide because it protects against a larger proportion of UVA rays (in fact, it often provides even better UVA protection than the chemical sunscreens).
But what about nanoparticles?
Nanoparticles refer to particles less than 100 or 200 nanometers in size (1 nanometer is 1/100,000 the width of a human hair!). There are concerns about the effect of nanoparticles – particularly those used in anti-ageing products – being able to change our skin’s cells.
Sun creams sometimes use nano-sized zinc or titanium dioxide in order to avoid a whitening effect on the skin. But any nano-size minerals used in sun care are very different to the nano-particles that are designed to penetrate skin cells and make us look younger: There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the mineral nanoparticles do not get absorbed into the skin and are safe to use.
So try a physical sunscreen to steer clear of synthetic, harmful sunscreen chemicals and take advantage of physical sunscreen benefits.
A great natural chemical-free sunscreen is our organic, fair trade Natural Sun Screen. It is extremely efficient at protecting you from UVB and UVA rays (its critical wavelength is an impressive 380!). It is also made up of safe, skin-nourishing ingredients including antioxidants to counteract other damaging effects of the sun.
If you'd like any more advice on harmful sunscreen chemicals or natural sunscreen, please do email us – firstname.lastname@example.org, add your question as a comment below, or call 01638 716593 – we're here to help! See our range of natural sun care products now.