Sun Protection


by NIKKI POPE, June 08, 2018


As the summer sun warms and shines, all who enter into the golden rays need to protect their skin. Protecting your skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays becomes a top priority. As revealed by many studies, the UVA and UVB radiations are bad for your skin. Besides the commonly feared skin-burning effect, these two sun radiations may cause premature aging, inflammation, early wrinkles, or worse, skin cancer (12)! That’s why most people slather loads of sunscreens before hitting the outdoors. What most people don’t know is that most of these topical sunscreens are overloaded with some seriously dubious ingredients that can have adverse effects on their body.

Sunscreens started out with pasty Zinc Oxide, but this product wasn’t appreciated a lot by the users. Therefore, manufacturing companies created sunscreens that used chemicals to absorb the UV radiations as opposed to Zinc Oxide that deflected the rays back. Chemical sunscreens contain synthetic components such as octinoxate and oxybenzone that are absorbed into the skin to absorb and filter UV rays to effectively protect deeper layers of your skin. However, because such components are absorbed in your body, there is a higher chance that they can lead to skin irritation and other detrimental effects on your body. The chemicals have also been proven to generate cell-damaging free radicals when exposed to the sun.

According to Environmental Working Group (EWG), 75% of topical sunscreens in this billion dollar market contain ingredients that can be considered harmful to human health (3). Their analyses indicate that some of these ingredients act like estrogen and critically disrupt your hormones, while also stating that others cause skin irritation and allergic reactions. EWG has consistently examined the usefulness of sunscreens made in the United States for over ten years. And due to the poor federal rules that have been set by the FDA, the organization feels that most sunscreen products indeed cause more harm than good. This explains why even though the sunscreen market is exceedingly growing, the number of people who are diagnosed with melanoma also keep growing.

EWG and other researchers have reported severe differences between some sunscreens advertised UV protection and the real results tested in the lab. In most, the advertised SPF (Sun Protection Factor) does not deliver the promise of protection against sunburn. According to information from Consumer Reports, most sunscreen products in the market deliver less than half the promoted SPF, while others deliver from 4 to 40% of their promised value. The researchers also claimed that very few of the 20 tested sunscreens work effectively after being submerged in water (4). Besides, a wealth of evidence has shown that most sunscreens have ingredients that can be absorbed into the bloodstream, and have toxic effects. Some can cause skin irritation and other allergic reactions, while others can release damaging free radicals in sunlight.

So, what is the best SPF for effective sun protection? There are products in the market with SPFs ranging from zero to 90—however, as Dr. Elizabeth Hale of the Skin Cancer Foundation points out the UVB protection doesn’t increase proportionally with the SPF number. For example, a sunscreen with an SPF value of 15% screens 93% of UV rays, while an SPF value of 30 screens 97% of the rays; only 4% extra. Most dermatologists recommend an SPF value of 15, but if you are outdoors for prolonged period of time, an SPF of 30 minimum is suggested. If you are extremely sensitive to the sun or you’ve had skin cancer before, dermatologists recommend an SPF value of 50 minimum.

There is also probably something you didn’t know about SPF—it only protects you against UVB rays (ones that cause cancer) but doesn't shield you from UVA rays! You should, therefore, go for “Broad Spectrum” sunscreens that protect you from both UVB and UVA rays. Remember, UVA can penetrate plastic, glass, clouds, and most fabrics reflect of surfaces around us such as windshield, windows, sand, water, snow, and more. And just like water, sweat can wash away sunscreen making you more susceptible to burns. You should, remember to reapply your sunscreen approximately after every 2 hours. Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing can also help a great deal. These are special clothes designed to protect you against UV radiation (both UVA and UVB). Unlike regular clothing, UPF clothes provide you with at least 98% blockages of incoming ultraviolet rays.

What are some of the most dangerous sunscreen ingredients out there?

  • Paraben Preservatives—parabens are highly linked with both chronic and acute side effects. Scientists have shown that they can induce allergic reactions, cause developmental and reproductive toxicity, as well as cause hormone disruption. Studies have also shown that some types of paraben mimic the activities of the hormone estrogen, and while estrogenic activities are linked with certain types of breast cancer, it is interesting to note that parabens have been found present in breast tumors (5).
  • Octocrylene—when this sunscreen ingredient is exposed to sunlight, it absorbs the radiations and produce oxygen radicals that can damage the body cells and cause mutation. There have also been reports in the literature about Octocrylene causing irritation, contact dermatitis in children, and photo-allergic contact dermatitis in adults (67). It is also said that this is one of the easiest chemical to be absorbed in the skin and may be accumulated in the body in huge amounts.
  • Homosalate—this ingredient is widely used in sunscreens today as well as other skin products with SPF. Studies have labeled this chemical element as a potential endocrine disruptor, while other studies suggest that it may cause hormone disruption. In addition to its direct health concerns, this Homosalate is also said to enhance the absorption of pesticides in the body. 
  • Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate)—like vitamin A, this ingredient, found in most sunscreen products is an antioxidant. Its function is to improve sunscreens’ performance against the aging effects caused by the UVA radiations. However, when exposed to such radiations, Retinyl Palmitate breaks down to produce free radicals that are harmful to body cells, may damage the DNA, and may also lead to cancer. EWG rates this chemical as highly toxic to human especially as a developmental and reproductive toxin (8).
  • Octinoxate—solid studies have proven that Octinoxate has a negative impact on the endocrine system, which is key in keeping the hormonal balance in check. Since it is absorbed really easily and fast in the body, this sunscreen ingredient increases the development of estrogen in the cell, which is a concern as high levels of estrogen are normally associated with the development of breast cancer. EWG rates this as a moderate hazard which can lead to developmental and reproductive toxicity (9).
  • Oxybenzone—this is one of the most common ingredients in today’s sunscreens according to EWG (80%). It is primarily used as a penetration enhancer. The compound has been shown to penetrate the skin’s deeper layers and cause photo-sensitivity (10). The EWG and other toxicology experts believe that Oxybenzone can lead to hormone disruption and has a potential to damage cells, which may lead to certain types of cancers.

The topic of sunscreen and the dangers in brings to the human is a loaded one. To be clear, we aren’t implying that all sunscreens out there are harmful, we’re only pointing out that some of the chemicals used are potentially menacing. Besides, more and more studies and evidence about the dangers of many sunscreens continue to emerge with most linking them to skin cancer.