Sun tans, Sun burns, & Sunscreen

Good sunscreen is a must for four days on an island!

Good sunscreen is a must for four days on an island!

Summer may be nearing its end but, if you're in the Collective, that doesn't mean that your basket of sunscreen will be put into hibernation. Here in California we're looking forward to fall—one of the most beautiful times of year when the crowds have died down and the weather is at it's best. This may mean island sailing trips, backpacking adventures, and (if you're like me) you may already be dreaming of higher altitudes in hopes that the long rumored El Nino year does in fact dump Sierra snow. Whatever the adventure may be, there will surely be sun on your cheeks. 

Sunscreen is a tricky topic. Some people say you shouldn't use chemical sunscreens, others say to put it on daily to avoid skin cancer, and yet some research shows that ditching the sunscreen in exchange for the sun’s natural vitamin D has its own benefits. This post is designed to break it all down for you and help you pick the best sunscreen for your health and the environment. If you are hoping to skip the details and just get the basics, check out the 7 take home points, below. If you are just looking for a recommendation or two, stay tuned for my next blog post in which I'll review a few sunscreens, including a couple of my go-tos. Want to learn more than I provide here? Check out Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep. This website is the most comprehensive resource I have found on how chemicals in cosmetics and home supplies (e.g. sunscreen, shampoo, detergents) impact human health and the environment.  You can find sources for the information shared here by checking out this handy little chart on Skin Deep’s website: http://www.ewg.org/2014sunscreen/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/. For now, lets get crankin' on the pesky details so you can really understand what you're putting on your body and in the lakes/rivers/oceans.

7 Take Home Points

  1. Avoid Oxybenzone
  2. Avoid Vitamin A (retinoic acid, retinal palmitate)
  3. Say yes to Zinc and Titanium Dioxide
  4. Reapply oftenEvery hour or so if you’re in the water or sweating. 
  5. SPF is misleading—Don’t assume 100 will give you double the protection of 50
  6. If you’re in the water or sweating, choose a water resistant sunscreen and don’t forget #4!!
  7. Avoid powders and sprays

Chemical vs. Mineral

Sunscreens contain chemical or mineral filters, or a combination of both. Mineral sunscreens provide a physical barrier between the sun and your skin, meaning the sun’s rays are blocked or deflected. Chemical sunscreens absorb the suns rays. While both are effective at preventing sunburns and reducing your risk of skin cancer, they have many important differences.

Chemical sunscreens(the smell-good, easy to rub in stuff most of us have grown up using) have been getting a bad rap lately.  Many of the ingredients aren’t great for your health or the environment. Chemical sunscreens can penetrate the skin, cause hormone disruption (breast feeding moms be careful—it has can be found in mother’s milk), are toxic to the reproductive system, interfere with development, and some are also known to cause skin allergies. On top of that, these chemicals can have serious impacts on the environment, such as bleaching our already stressed coral reefs. 

Mineral sunscreens, such as zinc and titanium dioxide, offer protection from the sun with fewer human health and environment impacts. Neither one has the skin penetration, hormone disruption, or skin allergen issues that chemical filers do. Mineral sunscreens are also reef safe, so you don’t have to worry about impacting corals when you jump in the ocean. (Or in a lake or river. Don’t forget, they are all part of a watershed that flows to the ocean!) 

The Skin Deep website makes it easy for us to figure out which products and ingredients we should look for and avoid.  The website provides scores of 0-10, based on health and environmental factors;the higher the score, the more harmful the ingredient is.  (For references and more information, see the chart on Skin Deep’s website here.) Scores for the most common chemical sunscreen ingredients are as follows: 

  • Oxybenzone: Score 8. Steer clear of this one! Oxybenzone covers all of the above: skin penetration, hormone disruption, skin allergies and, yes, coral reef bleaching. If you remember this one ingredient and avoid it, you’re off to a good start.
  • Octinoxate: Score 6. Same impacts as oxybenzone but this one appears to get a better score due to a moderate (as opposed to high) concern for skin allergies 
  • Homosalate: Score 4. Homosalate penetrates the skin and is a hormone disrupter. It is not know to be an allergen. 
  • Octocrylene: Score 3. Skin penetrator and skin allergan. 
  • Octisalate: Score 3;  and Avobenzone: Score 2. Octisalate stabilizes avobenzone, so you’ll likely see them together. If I could make my perfect sunscreen, it would be a combination of these ingredients and Zinc. Let me know if you ever come across that!! 

Mineral sunscreen ingredients:

  • Zinc: Score 2; From my research, this his seems to be the best ingredient to put on your skin. 
  • Titanium dioxide: 2; Not much concern here but there is limited evidence of cancer causing only when aerosolized (airborne). See my take on sprays and powders, below.

Other useful facts:

Mineral sunscreens, such as zinc and titanium dioxide, offer protection from the sun with fewer human health and environment impacts (Skin deep score of 2). Neither has the skin penetration, hormone disruption, or skin allergen issues that chemical filers do. Mineral sunscreens are also reef safe, so you don’t have to worry about impacting corals when you jump in the ocean. (Or in a lake or river…don’t forget they are all part of a watershed that flows to the ocean!) 

Vitamin A (retinoic acid, retinal palmitate) is another common sunscreen ingredient you should look out for. Vitamin A is included in a lot of sunscreens due to its anti-aging benefits. HOWEVER, Vitamin A may increase your chance of developing tumors on your skin. Let’s make sure this isn’t on the ingredient list, shall we? 

Powders/Sprays. Yes, I know sprays are convenient but I say ditch ‘em. More than likely they have all the worst ingredients, and you’re not only putting those chemicals on your body but inhaling them as well (please stop spraying your kids’ faces!). And, lets be honest, most of the sunscreen gets caught in the wind as opposed to on your body. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a big ol’ lung full of the stuff from someone a few beach blankets away. Yuck. Sunscreens also come in powder form. Zinc or titanium dioxide in powder have a Skin Deep score of 6 due to inhalation concerns. You may not think of it right away but many powder foundations have titanium dioxide in them. Ditch the stuff and use a moisturizer with sunscreen instead.

SPFor “sun protection factor” refers to the level of protection from UVB rays. While a SPF of 30 does protect better than an SPF of 15, it doesn’t double the protection. And, no, a SPF of 100 doesn’t mean that you have a veritable shield on your skin and you don’t need to reapply just as often. Ever since I started lifeguarding in 1999 I’ve heard rumors that the FDA was going to start regulating SPF so that consumers aren’t misled to believe this. In addition,this number doesn’t tell you anything about UVA protection, which is even more important because these are the cancer causing rays.

After all this information I can still hear you complaining under your breath about the fact that the best options, mineral sunscreens, are also the least convenient. Most of these sunscreens are hard put on, leave a white film, and don’t have that delicious coconut smell. Well, that’s the rub… In the next blog post I’ll be reviewing a few mineral sunscreens and will offer a couple options that won’t leave you looking like a mime. 

*Disclaimer* I’ve done my best to summarize the issues but remember—research is always changing so my opinions may too. Its always good to stay up to date and I’ll do my best to provide new information as it comes out on the blog. Soon I’ll have a whole sunscreen section, so stay tuned for that…