Toxic Sunscreen Chemicals and What Can Be Used As Safer Alternatives
As spring blossoms into a full roar, each day feels sunnier and sunnier. At Made Safe, we’re welcoming rapidly greening grass, the beginnings of spring flowers, and the feeling of sunshine on our faces after its long siesta. More sunshine means more hikes and bike rides, weekend camping trips, and days at the beach. And it also means it’s time to shop for sunscreen.
There’s a lot to consider when choosing a sunscreen. SPF, coral reefs, toxic ingredients – it’s a lot to take in! But I've got you (and your skin) covered.
Ingredients of Concern:
Oxybenzone: This ingredient is one of the most commonly-used sunscreen chemicals. Oxybenzone is linked to endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, contact allergies, and photoallergies, meaning exposure to light is required to generate an allergic response. This ingredient, sometimes called benzophenone-3, is not to be confused with benzophenone, another common sunscreen ingredient.
Oxybenzone is also harmful to aquatic life. This chemical is so harmful that in 2018, Hawaii banned it to protect coral reefs.
Octinoxate: A commonly used UV filter that protects from UVB rays, but not UVA sun rays. On packaging, it may be listed as OMC, methoxy-cinnamate or ethylhexyl methoxy-cinnamate.
Octinoxate is linked to endocrine disruption by an abundance of data, as well as to reproductive toxicity. Researchers have detected this chemical in breast milk, urine, and blood. Like oxybenzone, this ingredient was targeted in Hawaii’s ban, as it harms coral reefs.
Homosalate: A common sunscreen ingredient that absorbs UVB rays to prevent direct skin exposure. Homosalate absorbs UVB rays only.
This ingredient is linked to hormone disruption and it may also enhance the absorption of pesticides, including bug sprays. It may also enhance the penetration of other harmful ingredients found within the formulation. This ingredient is persistent in the environment, meaning it doesn’t break down readily.
Nanoparticles: Nanoparticles can be 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. In sunscreen, they’re most commonly found as nanoparticle titanium dioxide of zinc oxide.
Nanoparticles have not been properly assessed for their potential effects on human or environmental health. Researchers don’t yet understand the impact they could have. But because of their infinitesimally small size, nanoparticles may be more chemically reactive and therefore more bioavailable, meaning the particles are fast-tracked into the body.
Researchers have suggested that nanoparticle titanium dioxide may be implicated in coral reef degradation.
Why Are Coral Reefs Important?
Recently, it seems every conversation about sunscreen mentions coral reefs. But why is it crucial to protect them? Coral reefs are important for the immense biodiversity they support, as well as for the livelihoods of fishermen and economies dependent on tourism. Coral reefs also protect coastlinesfrom storms and erosion, and they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Simply put: if we protect coral reefs, they’ll help protect us too.
Safer Sunscreen Ingredients:
A naturally-occurring mineral found in the earth’s crust. It is a UV absorber, meaning it can soak up UV rays. Titanium dioxide absorbs UVB rays and some UVA rays, but may not provide full UVA protection. Titanium dioxide is safe for people and planet when it’s non-nanoparticle.
Zinc oxide is a naturally-occurring UV absorber. Zinc oxide offers broad spectrum protection, as it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. When non-nanoparticle, zinc is safe for humans and the environment.
Reading Sunscreen Labels:
Reef Safe: Don’t let labels fool you. Some sunscreens labeled as “reef safe” contain ingredients known to harm coral reefs. This is because there are no legal requirements or regulations for the use of the term “reef safe” on packaging. If the active sunscreen ingredient is anything besides non-nanomaterial titanium dioxide or non-nanomaterial zinc oxide, the ingredient may hurt coral reefs.
Understanding UV Spectrum: Ultraviolet light, aka UV light, is light from the sun that is invisible to the naked eye. Sunscreen works to protect humans from two different kinds of UV light. UVA light has a longer wavelength and is the kind of ray associated with premature aging of the skin. UVB light has a shorter wavelength and is the ray associated with sunburn and damage to the skin. Protection against both is crucial.
Choosing the Right SPF: SPF stands for sun protection factor. The number indicates the level of protection against UVB rays, but the numbering system isn’t user-friendly. A higher SPF doesn’t mean the amount of coverage jumps up significantly. SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays. SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays. And SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays. SPF is a measure of protection against UVB rays only. But remember that protection against UVA rays is important too, so choose a “broad spectrum” sunscreen, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
Safer Sun Tips:
- Cover up and find shade. We suggest using clothing and hats as an additional layer of protection. Color, material and weave all contribute to the level of protection fabrics provide. In general, the tighter the weave, the more protection from the sun.
- Avoid the strongest sun. If possible, skip the sun between 10 am and 2 pm.
- Wear UV blocking sunglasses. Don’t forget to protect your eyes from UV rays too!
- Beach umbrellas don’t protect you from the sun. Umbrellas create the illusion of protecting shade, but UV rays aren’t just shining down on you from the sun, they’re also reflecting off nearby sand. In one study that measured beach umbrella protection, researchers found that umbrellas only offered an SPF value between 3 and 7! So wear sunscreen and protective clothing too.
- Remember to cover up in the car. Many car windows filter out UVB, but not UVA rays. And the windshield is usually more protective than the side windows. So if you’re heading on a cross-country road trip this season, cover up and slather on the ‘screen.
- Don’t forget Vitamin D! The bulk of Vitamin D is absorbed through the skin from the sun. So if you completely avoid the sun, you could be missing out on this crucial vitamin that the majority of Americans are deficient in. Go outside early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the strongest sun. But don’t overdo it! Consult your doctor to learn how to safely get vitamin D from the sun.
- Look for mineral sunscreen with non-nano titanium dioxide or non-nano zinc oxide.