We all know that skin cancer is on the rise and we should be wearing sunscreen, but what about the side effects of sunscreens? If you spend a lot of time outdoors for whatever reason, be it work or leisure, you definitely need to be applying sunscreen.
Any time that you are going to be spending more than about 15-30 minutes in the sun, you should be applying sunscreen if you are going to expose your skin. But a safe sunscreen should be used, not one that does more harm than good. And unfortunately, so many of them do more harm than good.
Studies conducted recently made some shocking discoveries. This study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that there are many misleading claims made by sunscreens on the market. This means that you might not be getting protection that you bargained for when using some of the most popular brands on the market.
Why is it so that sunscreen companies would only provide half the protection or add dangerous ingredients? The answer to this question is that new medical research comes in, just like new technologies. But, doctors and some big manufacturing companies never update their knowledge. This gives rise to people like me. We read the research directly from the authenticated journals and would like to share with everyone.
Earlier it was thought that only UVB was only concern, but the new research says UVA is also a concern. <thats why incomplete protection from sunscreens. Further details in a minute.
What SPF Means
SPF is a measure of the amount of time that a particular sunscreen will protect your skin from the sun compared to when you are not wearing sunscreen. An SPF of 15 means that compared to going without sunscreen, your skin is protected 15 times longer. Same with SPF 30 and up.
Some sunscreens make claims about having SPF 70 and up. But do not be fooled. A higher SPF doesn’t really indicate more protection, in fact, the protection levels are not worth the higher cost of the sunscreen or any other nasty SPF 50+ sunscreen side effects. If SPF is 30+ or 50+, you need to reapply it every 2 hours. SPF higher does not mean that it will protect you longer.
Why You Shouldn’t Use SPF Greater Than 50
- The protection granted isn’t that much greater: SPF 15 protects you from 93% of the UV radiation, SPF 30 protects you from around 97%. From there the coverage slows down significantly. At SPF 50 the protection is around 98%. SPF 100 only adds an extra 1% of protection coming in at 99%.
- False advertising: Many do not actually provide the SPF level they claim to.
- Chemicals: More chemicals are put into these high-SPF products to provide that kind of protection. Using SPF 50+ causes more side effects.
- You still need to reapply: High-SPF sunscreens do not automatically mean that you can stay in the sun all day without reapplying sunscreen.
- Improper application means less protection: You still need to apply them to all your exposed skin and thick enough to provide protection. People are far more likely to apply less sunscreen when the SPF is high. In tests done, the sunscreens that were spread thinly offered less protection than when spread thicker.
UV Rays (UV Radiation) and SPF
The sun has two different types of rays, UVA, and UVB. One of the biggest problems regarding sunscreen efficacy is that they only protect against UVB rays. You may think that if you see SPF written on the bottle that you are covered, but this is not the case. SPF or sun protection factor only protect against the UVB rays from the sun. But what is the difference?
1. UVA Rays
These are the rays that cause long-term effects. Premature aging, wrinkles and DNA damage. The worst part is that they never decrease in intensity throughout the day, if you are outside you are exposed to them all the time. They also go through clouds, so when it’s overcast, you are still exposed.
UVA rays also penetrate glass, so you may be exposed even when you are inside if you are sitting near the windows. They penetrate your skin deeply which can cause all sorts of problems including lowering your immune system. UVA rays cause you to tan so they are the rays used in tanning beds.
UVA is the dominant tanning ray, and we now know that tanning, either outdoors or in a salon, causes cumulative damage over time. Thats why look for UVB tanning lamps.
Over time this leads to damaged skin and though previously thought not to cause skin cancer, studies have shown that UVA rays do, in fact, contribute to skin cancer formation too. There are two types of UVA rays, UVA1 and UVA2. UV1 rays are less damaging than UVA2 rays but they do still cause damage none the less. 75% of UVA rays reaching us are UVA2 rays.
2. UVB Rays
These rays only penetrate the surface of your skin, but they are the rays that cause sunburn. UVB rays are also the ones that cause skin cancer. They are more intense at different times during the day, particularly between 10 am and 4 pm. They do not penetrate glass as easily as UVA rays so you can escape them by staying inside during peak times.
You should choose a broad spectrum, also called full spectrum sunscreen, that protects against both UVA1, UVA2, and UVB rays.
Side Effects of Sunscreen Ingredients
Many sunscreens use chemicals that can be harmful in order to achieve sun protection. These chemicals are not doing you or your family any favors. Even some mineral-based sunscreens can contain chemicals or use the minerals in their incorrect form.
Your skin is permeable meaning that it allows certain substances to be absorbed. The problem with this is that when you use a sunscreen with harmful chemicals in it, they are absorbed too. They can then even enter your bloodstream and cause issues as you will see below.
Ingredients To Avoid When Buying Sunscreens:
- Oxybenzone: This is one of the worst. It has been shown to lower testosterone levels and sperm counts in men, and even boys. With women and teenage girls, the most common problem reported was endometriosis (growths in the uterus and fallopian tubes). Oxybenzone also often causes allergic reactions.
- Octinoxate: Thyroid hormones, as well as reproductive hormones, are negatively affected by octinoxate. Skin allergies were also reported.
- Octocrylene: Skin allergies are very common with the use of this chemical. A popular sunscreen (Peppa Pig Kids Sunscreen Range SPF50+) contains octocrylene caused a severe allergic reaction to a baby boy who ended up in the hospital because of it.
- Homosalate: Another chemical with a disruptive effect on the reproductive hormones in both men and women. Another problem is that when homosalate is broken down it can have toxic effects. This is a problem not only for you and your family but the environment too.
- Octisalate: Though one of the less harmful chemicals, octisalate can cause allergic reactions.
- Avobenzone: Though this chemical does not have ill effects on your hormones, it can cause allergic reactions when it breaks down. The problem is also that avobenzone is unstable in sunlight. Usually, octisalate is used as a stabiliser. Other chemicals are also sometimes used.
- Methylisothiazolinone: This chemical is used as a preservative in sunscreen but it’s extremely allergenic. The majority of the cases of allergic reaction reported were children.
- Parabens and other synthetic fragrances: Parabens and synthetic musks affect your hormones. Early onset of puberty and low sperm count are just two of the effects of paraben. They are common in many cosmetics, not just sunscreens. Just as bad if not worse, phthalates have carcinogenic effects.
- Retinyl palmitate: This is a form of vitamin A commonly used in cosmetics. There has been a lot of disagreement about the dangers of using it, especially in sunscreens. But the best is to be safe. The tests done on mice using retinyl palmitate and UV light caused tumours on the bodies of the mice. Though we are not sure that the same happens in humans exactly, I advise to avoid it until more research is done.
- Nanoparticles of zinc oxide: Often in mineral-based sunscreens nanoparticles of zinc oxide are used. These nanoparticles are able to enter your cells much more easily and have been found to be toxic to the cells in your colon (http://preventdisease.com/news/10/040810_evidence_nanoparticles_sunscreen_toxic.shtml). Zinc oxide is far better than these other harmful chemicals, but make sure that the particles are not nanoparticles.
- Nanoparticles of titanium oxide/titanium dioxide: These titanium oxide nanoparticles are also dangerous. They are widely used in all sorts of products. They have a free radical effect on the body. The worst is children tend to have higher levels.
Dr. Mercola has this handy little table containing most of these chemicals to avoid. Some of the ingredients on there are very rarely used because of the health effects despite being FDA approved:
Other Sunscreens to Stay Away From
- Spray-on sunscreen: These can cause inhalation of harmful chemicals, especially children. Another concern is that you can’t always tell whether you’ve actually been adequately covered especially on windy days. They are also flammable. Read Dr. Debra Jaliman’s take on it here.
- Nanoparticles hide behind other names: Ultrafine and microfine are also words used to indicate nanoparticles. The safer sunscreens tended to use non-nanoparticle sized zinc- and titanium-based mineral ingredients, which block the sun’s rays without penetrating your skin
What to Look for when Buying Sunscreens
With some of the top brands such as, Coppertone, Banana Boat Kids, Up and Up and Neutrogena (all over SPF 50) being on the toxic list you may worry that you won’t be able to find great sunscreens that are safe and affordable. But this is not the case.
Though it can be hard to tell from reading the label alone considering the results of these recent studies indicating that almost 75% of the sunscreens out there do not actually work, there are things that you can do to make sure that you and your family are getting the best protection possible.
The best sunscreens will contain:
- Zinc oxide (Protects against UVA1, UVA2, and UVB unlike other sunscreen ingredients)
- Titanium oxide (Less effective than zinc oxide, but works well in conjunction with it)
These ingredients reflect the UV rays away from the skin. Chemical ingredients tend to absorb the rays rather than reflecting them.
The best sunscreens will:
- Protect against both UVA and UVB rays
- Be between SPF 30 and SPF 50
- Not contain nanoparticles
- Not come in spray/aerosol form
This is an extensive list of safe sunscreens by EWG. There are options to suit everyone’s budget and there are lists of healthy sun-safe moisturizers and lip balms too.
Correct Application of Sunscreen
- Spread the sunscreen thickly to ensure good coverage and adequate protection.
- Remember your ears, feet, and toes.
- Remember the back of your hands and any other exposed areas.
- Reapply every 2 hours as well as after swimming or sweating.
- UV rays are reflected by sand as well as concrete, so you may need to reapply more frequently. Even snow reflects UV rays, so bear this in mind when skiing.
More Sun Safe Tips
Wearing sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect yourself from the sun. There are things that you should be doing too.
- Clothing: Covering up with long sleeves and long pants can really reduce your exposure from the sun. But note that if you can see through your clothing, the rays of the sun can get through to your skin. You can buy SPF clothing which may be useful if you are an outdoor athlete, but ensuring that the material is thick or completely blocks light is good too.
- Hats and sunglasses: Always wear a hat to protect your face. A wide brim hat will also protect your ears and the back of your neck too. Sunglasses should be used to protect your eyes. Make sure that they are good quality and protect against UV radiation. Before putting the sunglasses I always expose my eyes 10 minutes to the sun because we have one of the highest numbers of Mitochondria ( Power House) of the cells, in the eyes and they are affected positively from the sunshine. In short, sunlight is good for the eyes.
- Stay out of the sun during peak hours: Between 10 am and 4 pm is when the sun is at the strongest and as mentioned before, is when UVB rays are most intense.
- Shade: If you do go outdoors, seek out shade or take an umbrella with. Umbrellas are easy to use when going to the beach. If you are going for a picnic, try to find an area where there are trees, huts or gazebos.
- Protect your home or office: UVA-filtering window film is available for purchase. Be sure to go to a reputable company where the quality is assured and the proper tests have been conducted on their products.
Did you know that there is an internal sunscreen as well? Meaning by consuming these nutrients, your skin is naturally protected. There are foods that help to protect your skin from the sun. Antioxidants have protective functions, not just for the inside of your body, but also the outside:
- Beta-carotene-rich foods: Carrots, sweet potato, red bell peppers, pumpkin all contain beta-carotene. Eating foods rich in beta-carotene also give your skin a natural healthy glow.
- Vitamin C: Broccoli, bell peppers and lemons all contain vitamin C which is known well for its ability to keep the skin healthy. It’s important for collagen production and skin healing.
- Lycopene: Tomatoes, especially when cooked provide this powerful antioxidant. Adding olive oil to your tomato dishes can increase its absorption.
- Vitamin E: Nuts like almonds and peanuts contain vitamin E, so do sunflower seeds. You can also take a supplement but if you are getting enough from your diet, rather leave the supplement because your body can’t excrete excess vitamin E very well.
- Astaxanthin: Salmon, trout, lobster, and krill are good sources. You can also find it in supplement form. Astaxanthin can also be applied to your skin for healthy skin and some sun protection but because it’s usually got red pigment, it may make you slightly red color.
- Omega 3: Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel have omega 3 and the plant form is found in flax seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts. Taking a krill oil supplement is also very beneficial.
- Catechins: Green tea, white tea, and coffee all have sun protective properties when consumed regularly.
Making your own sunscreen is also a good option. It’s much easier to control what goes into it and you won’t need to worry about harmful chemicals anymore. This recipe comes from the Bulletproof website by David Asprey.
Homemade Bulletproof Sunscreen
2 tbsp. beeswax (this will make it water resistant)
¾ cup coconut oil
¼ cup Brain Octane Oil
½ cup non-nano zinc oxide (powder)
- Heat the beeswax with the coconut oil in a small saucepan, just until it’s melted. Do not bring to a boil.
- Pour the melted wax and oil into a bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Mix well using a spoon or spatula.
- To use, distribute evenly over exposed skin and massage in. Reapply every couple of hours or so, especially if you’re sweating or swimming.
- Save leftover sunscreen in an airtight glass container in the fridge. About eight drops of vitamin E oil will also help to keep it from going rancid.
Just be sure not to breathe in the zinc oxide. Consider using a mask to be on the safe side.
The Relation Between the Sun and Skin Cancer
Protecting yourself from overexposure to the sun is very important. But the sun is still necessary in small doses. Vitamin D is the result of a reaction between your skin and sunlight. In fact, the vitamin D gained through sun exposure actually protects against skin cancer as found in this study.
Vitamin D does the following:
- Ensures healthy bones
- Boosts your immune system to fight off illnesses including cancer
- Helps to prevent depression
- Reduces inflammation in the body
You may have heard that you only need 10 minutes or only 15 minutes, but the amount of sun you need can vary with different factors. Global health watch has published this table so that you know exactly how much sun is good specifically for you:
You can check the UV index of the area you are in using apps or checking with the local weather service.
- Sunscreen is important for long periods of time spent in the sun
- Many sunscreens on the market have harmful chemicals in them that disrupt hormones and cause allergic reactions
- Recent studies done show that many of the sunscreens do not even work as well as they claim to if at all
- Avoid sunscreens containing nanoparticles, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and omosalate
- Avoid spray-on sunscreens as you and your children can breathe in the chemicals or not apply enough to provide good protection
- Choose a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects you from both UVA and UVB rays
- The safest sunscreens use non-nano zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide
- You can make your own sunscreen using ingredients like zinc oxide, coconut oil, and beeswax
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