How healthy is your sunscreen and
Can it make you sick?

Simply applying any old sunscreen doesn't always provide you with the best sun protection. How healthy your sunscreen is and whether or not it can make you sick actually makes for very interesting conversation as well as incredible research.

More than ever before, people all over the world are choosing to use sunscreen to protect themselves from sunburn and guard against skin cancer. Through knowledge provided in this information age of ours, preference is predominantly for high SPF rated sunscreens, with broad spectrum for both UVA and UVB radiation protection and optionally some water-resistance.

I believe there is just so much more to it than that, as the world of sunscreens is not simple. It is really quite complex.

Like many other things in life today, most people will view the information supplied at face value and trust all the claims being made ensuring health and wellness protection. "Slip, Slop, Slap" isn't that easy, as unfortunately we cannot afford to be uninformed about what the labels are proclaiming.

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Sunscreen choices 

Sunscreens are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ways that the chemical industry and various governments' legislation, are failing to protect public health. Policing it all is pretty impossible, so the more informed we become, the better off we are. 

An extensive body of global scientific literature over the years demonstrates that almost everyone today carries vast amounts of industrial chemicals in their body. This is as a result of exposure to contaminants in air, water, and food, plus ingredients in the products we consume daily.

Do you think when you are outside and you lather those creams and lotions on that you are safe?

Not necessarily so. 

Essentially, you don't need a sunburn to suffer the effects of skin cancer, although a sunburn certainly helps!

Many products tend to do a good job protecting us from the UVB rays, which are the ones that will give you that sunburn. But then there the UVA rays, which are far worse in that they soak deeper into your skin and leave a deeper level damage which can result in skin cancer. So without UVA protection you're really vulnerable. 

And then of course, there is the complicated aspect of Vitamin D creation, which for the best natural creation of Vit D through the skin, requires exposure to the sun's UVB rays...... 

So you see, sunscreen choice is really not that simple and certainly not easy to make a healthy choice and sometimes your choice can even make you sick.

How to choose a healthy, non-toxic sunscreen?

People tend to focus on buying high-SPF products, assuming that they're getting maximum sun protection, which is untrue.

Although high SPF ("Sun Protection Factor") products do protect you from sunburn caused by the sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, they don't necessarily block the UVA radiation. These are the more deeply penetrating rays linked to skin ageing and wrinkling, immune system suppression, as well as skin cancer.

Significant studies done by various organisations have revealed a high percentage of sunscreen products provide inefficient protection from the sun and/or are potentially harmful to one's health. Ideally, healthy, non-toxic sunscreens need to be...

  • Effective: providing balanced protection for both UVA and UVB radiation
  • Safe: containing no toxic health hazards within any single ingredient  
  • Stable: with no ingredients breaking down into a toxic structure when in sunlight

UVA and UVB sun protection

UVB rays are the ones that burn our skin and the SPF provides protection from them, sometimes with really high numbers. Some sunscreens even claim an SPF of 100 but this never provides a 100% block. See the protection curve in the graph below - it never quite reaches 100.

What's not so widely known is why the UVA rays are so bad for us? and why it's important to get balanced protection from both UVA and UVB?

Even at low-level exposures, UVA radiation breaks down skin collagen, causing skin damage and ageing - most especially those unwanted wrinkles. And research shows us 90% of wrinkles are caused by the sun's UVA light and their sun damage is the Number One cause of premature ageing in both women and men.

More scary, is that scientists have established that UVA is linked to immune system problems and is the main culprit behind melanomas because it reaches deep into the underlying support structure of the skin.

Sunscreen Safety

Various researchers and reviews of individual contents of sunscreens have revealed some really alarming aspects. Some have found that they can do more harm than good once they soak into the skin, where some are even carcinogenic in themselves. As far as I am concerned, this defeats the primary reason for wearing a sunscreen in the first place and am continually amazed at the amount of toxic junk found inside sunscreens. I would rather wear nothing and protect myself by other means, like clothing and keep to the shade.

For example, these 3 commonly used ultraviolet (UV) filters, soak into the deeper layers of the skin after their application, leaving the top skin layers vulnerable to sun damage:

  • octylmethoxycinnamate
  • benzophenone 3
  • octocrylene 

UV rays absorbed by the skin can generate harmful compounds called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which can cause skin cancer and premature ageing. Researchers found that once the chemical filters in sunscreen soak into the lower layers of the skin, they react with UV light to create more damaging ROS.

Other toxic ingredients include:

  • Some product ingredients absorb into the blood and raise safety concerns linked to their toxic effects.
  • Some release skin-damaging free radicals when in sunlight.
  • Some act like oestrogen and disrupt our hormone systems.
  • Several are strongly linked to allergic reactions.
  • Still others may build up in the body or in the environment.

Stability

Sunscreens must be stable in the sun. Some active sunscreen ingredients are more stable than others, but nearly all break down to some extent in the sun.

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are mineral based sunscreen active ingredients and do not break down in the sun. However, nearly every chemical active ingredient works by first absorbing the sun's energy so it doesn't penetrate our skin any deeper, and then releases the captured energy by breaking apart, reacting with other chemicals in the sunscreen, or in some cases kicking off free radicals. 

Recent legislation requires that manufacturers produce stable products as well as Broad Spectrum protection. This has generated a notable shift to using either zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide in sunscreen formulations. Sun savvy sunscreen users are increasingly looking for these ingredients for best protection.

Best Sun Protection Recommendations

Best sun protection can be achieved through a combination of:

  • Internal protection: nutrition and nutraceuticals 
  • External protection: sunscreen and clothing

Antioxidants: berries, 'superfoods' and yummy fresh produce eaten on a regular basis, which contain natural antioxidants, are utilised by your skin to protect you from excessive ultraviolet ray exposure. Studies have also shown that by putting them directly onto your skin protects your skin, keeping it smooth and healthy-looking, but more importantly, boosting the natural healing capabilities of your skin from the inside out. 

According to Dr. Hanson, products with a sun protection factor can block a certain amount of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) light, while the rest of the light hits the skin and can create free radicals, which when unchecked, will distort or destroy cell membranes. The free radicals also damage DNA, can cause age spots, and compromise our immunity, resulting in skin cancers.

While most sunscreens can't protect you against these free radicals, Dr. Hanson has found that antioxidants applied to the skin can reduce the free radicals that may have been generated. When she studied how vitamin C worked, she found that "vitamin C was by far the best [free radical] quencher." The enzymes in your skin work with vitamin C to fight these free radicals.

However, I have found that there are many other natural ingredients used in skin products that are as powerful or, in some interesting cases, far more powerful than Vitamin C.

So How Does Sunscreen Work?

The basics behind most sun protection products involve absorbing, reflecting, or scattering the sun's rays in combinations of organic and/or inorganic active ingredients.

Inorganic active ingredients are natural minerals like zinc oxide or titanium oxide. They provide protection by reflecting or scattering  both the UVA and UVB rays.

Organic active ingredients are chemicals such as octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) or oxybenzone, which absorb the UV rays, dissipating them as heat. Most provide effective protection from UVB rays but not UVA rays at all. 

Besides these active ingredients there are many others that may further enhance the sun protection properties:

  • Some natural oils have sun protection properties
  • Some botanicals contain proven sun protection abilities
  • Certain antioxidants found in botanical extracts' vitamins, minerals and/or amino acids will boost internal protection capabilities  

In many cases these will last a lot longer in our bodies' systems than the active sunscreen ingredients, which typically require re-application to be effective.

How to Apply Sunscreen Properly

Sunscreens do not provide complete, as in 100%, protection from the sun's UV rays. Even if the SPF says 100!

Many, or most, people use sunscreens ineffectively simply by not applying enough, or covering enough. In many cases, people will apply only 25% to 50% of the recommended amount. Ideally, sunscreens should be applied liberally enough to all sun-exposed skin, so that it forms a film when initially applied. Including the nose, ears, neck, hands, scalp and feet, which are regularly forgotten and the worst hit.

Chemical based sunscreens take 20-30 minutes before they are absorbed sufficiently by the skin. This means applying at least half an hour before going out in the sun and of course many of us only remember when the suns starts to burn!

Mineral-only based sunscreens (with no added chemical sunscreens) are effective immediately as they work by sitting on the surface of the skin. This means re-application become important should you swim, sweat, wipe-off while active, etc

Ideally the chemical sunscreen is applied before moisturisers or such, but the mineral sunscreen applied last so that it stays on top of the skin.

Importance of Reapplying Sunscreen

Most sunscreen application instructions will recommend reapplying "frequently", where the definition of "frequently" is vague.

A common instruction is to reapply after 2-4 hours in the sun. However, one study has shown that reapplying sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes after being in the sun is more effective than waiting 2 hours. It is possible that this time period is more effective because most people do not apply enough initially, and this second application approximates the actual amount needed.

Sunscreen can also be washed off, rubbed off or sweated off. In these cases, it requires more frequent reapplication.

Ideally, sunscreen should be applied daily. The daily use of a low SPF sunscreen (15) has been shown to be more effective in preventing skin damage than only using a higher SPF sunscreen now and again.

Have A Great Story About This Topic?

Do you have a story or an experience or even a question about the benefits and dangers or other issues relating to sunscreen and sun exposure? Then please share it here!

What Other Visitors Have Said

Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page...

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