If you’ve been reading Wellness Mama for a while, you probably know that I don’t wear sunscreen regularly. For one reason, I want to get vitamin D naturally (which is important for actually protecting against sunburn and skin cancer). Also, I prefer optimizing my natural protection by eating foods that support it. I also avoid being in the sun’s rays more than is necessary for vitamin D production and use clothing and hats to protect against too much sun. But there are times that sunscreen is important, like when we go to the beach. But not all sunscreen is created equal, and some may cause more harm than good.
What’s the Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreen?
There are two main kinds of sunscreen: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreen uses chemicals to block UVA and UVB rays, while mineral sunscreen uses physical barriers in the form of minerals like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (these are naturally broad spectrum).
Chemicals used in conventional sunscreen include the following:
- ethylhexyl salicylate
However, some mineral sunscreens also contain chemical sunscreen ingredients, so it’s important to check the active ingredients.
Dangers of Chemical Sunscreens
These chemical sunscreen ingredients aren’t harmless either. They affect the body and the environment in serious ways.
In the 1970s, the FDA grandfathered in many sunscreen chemicals because they were already in use. These chemicals have never been evaluated for safety.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), oxybenzone is the most concerning of the chemicals in conventional sunscreen. Oxybenzone can easily pass through the skin and into the body. It was found in 96 percent of the adult population and can cause allergic reactions, especially on sensitive skin. It was also found to be a weak estrogen and to have potent anti-androgenic effects (block hormones like testosterone).
Because of its connection to adverse birth outcomes and potential hormonal interference, EWG recommends that everyone, especially pregnant/breastfeeding women and children avoid oxybenzone containing sunscreens.
In addition to concerns about oxybenzone, EWG research has shown that retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) can actually cause cancer when activated by UV rays on the skin. Ironically, this ingredient is added to some sunscreen products because vitamin A is an antioxidant known to help fight skin aging.
You can read the complete EWG guide to sunscreens here.
It’s Unclear Whether Sunscreen Really Prevents Cancer
Experts don’t even agree on whether sunscreen is helpful in preventing skin cancer. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), skin cancer rates have doubled in the last 30 years. At the same time, sunscreen use has only increased.
Chronic sunscreen use can reduce the benefits of sun exposure and potentially increase skin cancer risk. A 2004 study published in the Lancet showed that indoor workers were twice as likely to get skin cancer than those who spent more time in the sun. Researchers explain that there may be a protective aspect of sun exposure.
We know that low vitamin D levels have been linked to cancer in many studies. So it would make sense that blocking sun exposure (and the vitamin D it creates) could have a negative effect on the body.
Sunscreen Can Cause Unsafe Sun Exposure
One more concern with sunscreen use is that many chemical sunscreens have high SPF ratings which may be misleading to consumers, causing them to spend too much time in the sun. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has talked about banning claims over 50 SPF. This is potentially true for physical sunscreens as well, making the advice to stay out the sun and wear clothes to cover the skin very important.
Chemical sunscreen use also affects the environment. People use sunscreen before swimming and much of it is washed off into the water.
Oxybenzone can be fatal to baby coral and damaging to adult coral in high concentrations, according to a study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.
This study found that oxybenzone:
- contributes to coral bleaching
- alters coral DNA
- acts as an endocrine disruptor (causing baby coral to encase itself in its own skeleton and die)
Concentrations of oxybenzone as low as 62 parts per trillion caused damaging effects. For perspective, the researchers explain that this is the equivalent of one drop in 6.5 Olympic swimming pools. Clearly, not much sunscreen is needed to cause environmental problems. It’s alarming then that they found that in Hawaii and the Caribbean (places frequented by tourists), concentrations were 12 times higher!
Additionally, a review published in January 2019 found that sunscreen chemicals such as oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, and ethylhexyl salicylate are in almost all water sources around the world. Researchers explain that they are not easily removed by common wastewater treatment plant techniques. These chemicals have also been found in fish around the world, potentially causing problems in the food chain.
Harms Other Marine Life
Oxybenzone is also toxic to algae, sea urchins, fish, and mammals.
According to MarineSafe.com, oxybenzone can have the following effects:
- Inhibits embryonic development in sea urchins.
- Causes gender shifts in fish (male fish take on female characteristics and female fish have reduced ability to produce offspring).
- Potentially acts as a mutagen and exhibits carcinogenic activity in mammals.
Other ingredients in sunscreens are also cause for concern. Organosilicon compounds like silicon polymers, that are used as alternatives to oil in commercial sunscreen are one of these ingredients. These can bioaccumulate in fish and other marine life according to a case study published in Environmental Science and Technology.
Preservatives (like parabens) are another concerning ingredient. They are added to stop growth of fungi and bacteria in the product. Unsurprisingly, this ingredient may also disrupt the natural growth of these organisms in the ocean.
How to Find the Right Mineral Sunscreen
As mentioned earlier, some mineral sunscreens also contain chemical sunscreen ingredients. I like to make my own sunscreen and sunscreen lotion bars since I know exactly goes into it. But there are times when a store-bought variety is more practical.
If you’re looking for a mineral sunscreen that’s truly safe, check the ingredients. If any of the above chemicals are listed, don’t buy it. Additionally, if it’s made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide make sure it is non-nano. This means that the particles are not nano-sized (i.e., able to penetrate into the body).
The EWG lists some mineral sunscreens that are safe (and I’ve tried many of these personally):
Thankfully there are now so many companies making safe, natural sunscreen that there are too many brands to list!
Internal Sun Protection
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, sunscreen isn’t the end-all be-all to sun protection. Optimizing health so the body can protect itself in mild exposure to the sun is important. First focus on healthy foods that support skin health.
- Vitamin D3 is important for overall health and emerging evidence suggests it’s also important for avoiding sunburns.
- Vitamin C helps protect against the sun because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
- Coconut oil is used by the body for new skin formation and protects against burning.
- Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory fatty acids helpful in preventing sunburns.
- Astaxanthin is a highly potent antioxidant which research shows acts as an internal sunscreen. I don’t give this one to the kids though.
Sun Protection Without Sunscreen
The best form of sun protection is avoiding prolonged times in direct sunlight. Some sun is okay (and important) but after getting enough sun for vitamin D, cover up with long sleeves and hats or stay in the shade.
My Take on Mineral Sunscreens
Mineral sunscreens that don’t contain chemical sunscreens or nano physical sunscreen ingredients are our best bet for sunscreen protection. However, it’s always important to take other sun safety measures too. Getting enough vitamin D and other important nutrients, staying in the shade, and wearing protective clothing in the sun are all sun-protection techniques that compliment mineral sunscreen.
Do you have a favorite brand of mineral sunscreen? Please share below!
- Ewg. (n.d.). EWG’s 2018 Guide to Safer Sunscreens. https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/
- Rivers, J. K. (2004, February 28). Is there more than one road to melanoma? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15005091
- Downs, C. A., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Segal, R., Fauth, J., Knutson, S., Bronstein, O., . . . Loya, Y. (2015, October 20). Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00244-015-0227-7
- Review of environmental effects of oxybenzone and other sunscreen active ingredients. (2018, November 14). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0190962218321893
- Bioconcentration and Aquatic Toxicity of Superhydrophobic Chemicals: A Modeling Case Study of Cyclic Volatile Methyl Siloxanes. (n.d.). https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/acs.est.5b03195
- Sunscreen Pollution. (2016, May 03). http://www.marinesafe.org/blog/2016/03/18/sunscreen-pollution/
- Ewg. (n.d.). EWG’s 2018 Guide to Safer Sunscreens. https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/8-little-known-facts-about-sunscreens/