It’s one of life’s unfortunate ironies that in slapping on sunscreen to protect our skin against cancer-causing rays, we may actually increase our exposure to carcinogenic chemicals. Thankfully, this is one situation where safe and effective alternatives via natural sunscreen are available.
Generic sunscreens can contain all manner of nasties, including oxybenzone and octocrylene. Avoiding these need not mean forgoing sunscreen entirely, however, nor does it mean that the smart move is to rely on coconut oil or olive oil as a natural sunscreen (they afford very little protection, as I explain below).
In this post, we will give you the rundown on how to find a safe, effective, and natural sunscreen suitable for use by the whole family.
Why choose natural? Toxins in sunscreens
For sunscreen to be useful, we’re supposed to apply a thick coating over large areas of skin, and to reapply regularly. Shouldn’t these products be free, then, of chemicals that can irritate skin, cause allergic reactions, or upset cellular metabolism? And, shouldn’t sunscreen sprays and lip sunscreens be free from chemicals that can irritate the lungs or gut, in case we inadvertently ingest or inhale them?
In an ideal world, yes.
Penetration enhancers in sunscreen
Unfortunately, many sunscreens not only fail to protect the skin as they should, they can also cause skin damage, disrupt hormones, and form potentially harmful breakdown products that affect our overall health. Sunscreen manufacturers also like to use ‘penetration enhancers’ to enable the creams and lotions to stick to the skin. This means that any nasty chemicals have an easier time getting through the skin and into general circulation. In fact, it’s not unheard of for undesirable chemicals from sunscreens to end up in breast milk, blood, and urine, as well as to build up in tissues in the body.
Active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms: mineral sunblock and chemical filters. Chemical filters are the most common active ingredients and usually comprise a combination of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Most sunscreens contain at least two of these chemicals. Mineral sunblocks usually include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide either alone or in combination. A few products use both chemical and mineral ingredients.
Organic sunscreen may actually be bad for you
A word on the word ‘organic’ in relation to sunscreens: chemical sunscreens are, somewhat confusingly, ‘organic’, while mineral blocks are ‘inorganic’. As such, a sunscreen referred to as ‘organic’ may actually be worse for your health than one that contains ‘inorganic’ ingredients. Confused? That’s understandable. Chemistry is weird in its nomenclature.
The 5 worst toxins in sunscreen
Putting that confusion aside for a moment, what you really need to know about toxins in sunscreens is that there are five key culprits to look out for (currently):
- Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3, or BP-3)
- Octinoxate (Octylmethoxycinnamate)
I should also mention that many products also contain a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate.
Retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant that combats skin aging, which sounds good, right? Yes, but… studies suggest that when used on the skin, retinyl palmitate may actually react with sunlight to trigger the development of skin tumors and lesions (R). Retinyl palmitate may also be listed as retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol on product labels, and is best avoided.
Another thing to consider is the use of products containing sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and/or sodium lauryl sufate (SLS) prior to applying sunscreen. These are often included in body wash and other soaps and are two of those ‘penetration enhancers’ I mentioned above (as is DEET). So, try to avoid using products that contain SLS or SLES as they may accentuate the negative effects of those chemicals listed above.
The problems with nanoparticles in sunscreens
The two most widely used ingredients in inorganic, mineral, sunblock are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These are highly effective at blocking UV rays and are generally considered the better option for sunscreens, compared to the chemical filters already discussed above. These ingredients do not break down in the sun to create toxic by-products, and they provide strong sun protection including from UVA rays that cause skin cancer (and collagen degradation that leads to wrinkles).
That said, sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide do pose some risks to health if not handled properly. The main concern here is that modern mineral sunscreens are formulated with nanoparticles to minimize the white tint that used to make users look like mimes. These nanoparticles vary greatly in size, shape, and in terms of coatings, are poorly regulated in many countries, and can pose serious health risks if inhaled or ingested.
To get around these concerns, some companies promote their sunscreens as being made with “non-nano” titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Be very wary of these claims as almost all such sunscreens would still be deemed to contain nanoparticles by US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards. Any sunscreen containing titanium dioxide that is at all transparent will contain nanoparticles as the lotion would otherwise be opaque.
No requirement for disclosure
Unfortunately, sunscreen manufacturers are not required by law to disclose which types of nanoparticles they use in their products, meaning that it can be hard to determine the safety of such sunscreens.
One key thing to note with these types of sunscreens is that nanoparticles can cause serious lung damage if inhaled (titanium dioxide is considered a carcinogen if inhaled in high doses) (R, R). Titanium dioxide is the one of the most commonly used nanoparticles and is present as a white pigment in paint, as a food additive, in food packaging material, sunscreens, cosmetic creams, and even in surgical implants. Research suggests that titanium dioxide is very slow to be eliminated from the body (it has biodurability), meaning that it could accumulate over our lifetime (R).