Friday, April 18, 2008

What About Sunscreen?

Even in the middle of Winter people ask me: what do you recommend for sunscreen? Now that there's a hint of Spring/Summer out there (even though it snowed here today!) I'm sure I'll be asked the question more. So, I thought I'd lay it all out here so you know exactly what I think about sunscreen.

In my opinion, most sunscreens can do more harm than good. Most of them are filled with synthetic fragrances, parabens, formaldehyde donors---ingredients you'd find in common lotions. The biggest difference though, is the "active ingredient." These active ingredients are the components that keep your skin from burning in the sun for a period of time. The problem with these active ingredients is that when exposed to sun, they break down and create free-radicals on the skin. Now wait a minute---aren't these the free radicals we all hear about that cause cancer? They sure are. So, even if you're not being visibly burned, your skin can get damaged invisibly from these chemicals. How does this happen? Instead of being a sunblock that reflects the sun's rays, these particles absorb the sun's energy. The energy has to be released from the particle somehow, so it breaks down and creates free-radicals (also referred to as "oxidative species") Let's take a look at a few "active ingredients" one by one. I've listed a few examples of products that contain these chemicals, although there are many more products than listed.

Used in:
Neutrogena Skin Smoothing Body Lotion
Banana Boat UVA & UVB Sunscreen
Jason Naturals Sunscreen

Oxybenzone is one of the most commonly used SPF agents, and possibly the most damaging. According to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep website, a 2006 study showed that oxybenzone (aka benzophenone-3), "produces excess reactive oxygen species that can interfere with cellular signaling, cause mutations, lead to cell death and may be implicated in cardiovascular disease." Cellular mutations? Isn't that what causes cancer? That's the fallacy of modern sunscreens today. We think we're protecting ourselves with these chemicals, but they can be doing just as much, or even more harm than the sun. Oxybenzone is also known to be absorbed into the skin and the bloodstream, and can affect the endocrine system and hormone function in the body.

Used in:
Blistex Lip Balm
Carmex Lip Balm

Phenol receives a risk of 10 on the EWG Skin Deep Database, the worst score an ingredient can get. It is banned in Canada and Japan, there is limited evidence that it is a carcinogen, it is known to be a reproductive and developmental toxin, and a wildlife pollutant.

Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
Used in:
Alba Organics Sunscreens
Jason Naturals Sunscreen
Coppertone Sunblock
Aveeno Facial Sunblock

Often listed as "made from cinnamon" by the peddlers of "natural" products, Octinoxate is an endocrine disruptor, estrogen mimicker, a penetration enhancer, and "produces damaging reactive oxygen species upon exposure to sunlight."

Used in:
L'Oreal Daily Face Moisturizer

Octocrylene is restricted in Japan because it creates free radicals on the skin when exposed to sunlight and is a penetration enhancer. One study says that "when octocrylene penetrates into the skin, the level of reactive oxygen species increases above that produced naturally under UV illumination." Another free-radical-forming chemical.

PABA (Octyl Dimethy PABA, PABA Ester)
Used in:
Aubrey Organics Nature's Balance Unscented SPF Hand and Body Lotion

PABA has a long list of concerns. In the manufacturing process, it can be contaminated with nitrosamines, a group of dangerous carcinogenic chemicals. It too produces free radicals on the skin, and lab tests have shown it to cause cellular mutations. A penetration enhancer and a hormone distruptor, PABA has long been an ingredient to be avoided.

Used in:
Jason Naturals
Total Block Cotz Waterproof Sunblock

Nano Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are gaining popularity among the "safer" companies that make sunblock. Sometimes billed as "natural" or "mineral" these particles are anything but natural. Labs take the natural minerals of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and put them under intense heat, light, and other processes that break down their natural structure to make them smaller particles. These nanoparticles are then absorbed into the skin and in to your body. You now have these little particles of metal in your bloodstream that your body doesn't know how to handle. Nanoparticles are a very recent invention and there has not been enough study done to find out the side effects of these unnatural particles. They too break down to create free-radicals in your skin. In their natural, non-nano form, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are my safer sunblock agents of choice. The most difficult thing is that companies don't usually disclose if they're using nanoparticles. So, it could be listed as zinc oxide and we don't know if it's "regular," "micronized," or "nano." Micronized is smaller than natural and larger than nano. Most companies claim that micronized particles are not absorbed into the skin.

The Safer Choice: Non-Nano Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. Zinc Oxide especially is a great sunblock agent. It gives you both UVA and UVB protection. This is the old-fashioned zinc oxide you see in old surfing movies---the white pasty stuff. Yes, it's not as convenient, and it's not as fashionable, but it's the safest and gives you the best protection. One thing to consider when using a zinc oxide sunblock is to apply it frequently. Zinc oxide is a powerful anti-inflammatory, so it's going to soothe your skin. So much, in fact, that you could be sunburned and not know it. After your day in the sun, you go in and rinse off the zinc oxide and you could be deeply burned. This is why I always recommend to apply it every hour to make sure you've got adequate protection, even if you feel like you're not getting burnt.

I'm still looking for a product with non-micronized zinc oxide for my personal use and recommendation. As soon as I find it I'll be sure to post it. If any of you know of any sunblocks that fall under these guidelines of safety or have any product suggestions, be sure to post your comments below. We are currently developing a sunscreen with zinc oxide, as well as some other choices, and we'll keep you informed of them as they come out.

There's always another more organic option: a wide-brimmed hat!

What do you think? Would you rather use the less-fashionable white sunblock for safety's sake, or would you take your chances with nanoparticles?

Badger Balm and Mexitan use micronized particles instead of nanoparticles. They claim that the particles are not absorbed into the skin. So far, these two products are the safest that I've seen. Thanks to Monica for the tip!