Chemical
Practice Safer Sunscreening

Practice Safer Sunscreening

May 13, 2013

Sunscreens shield us from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation. To provide this defense, they contain chemical and mineral ingredients that scatter, reflect or absorb UV radiation, including oxybenzone, octyl methoxycinnamate, avobenzone, zinc, and titanium. When it comes to health and safety, mineral sunscreens are preferable to chemical ones.

In the chemical realm, Oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate are allergens and possible hormone disruptors. Because oxybenzone can penetrate skin in significant amounts, it’s best to avoid using formulas containing it, especially on children. If you’re stuck going the chemical route—say, running last minute on vacation to a drug store with no mineral sunscreens in sight—avobenzone and mexoryl (a camphor derivative also called ecamsule) are better options.

In the natural realm, zinc and titanium, two non-toxic minerals, provide even safer and more effective sunscreening. They sit on top of skin instead of going into it. Don’t worry; you won’t look overly white or pasty. Today’s so-called “vanishing” products—as opposed to older formulations—use ultra tiny micro- and nano-sized particles that go on clear-ish. While nanotechnology remains a general concern, studies have found that nano-based sunscreens generally don’t penetrate skin. Due to possible inhalation risks, however, powder and spray varieties should be avoided. If you’d prefer to avoid nanoparticles entirely, some mineral sunscreen manufacturers make “non-nano” products that conform to international nanotechnology standards (the FDA doesn’t have any).

For years, experts cautioned against using sunscreen for infants under the age of 6 months. Now new guidelines say to use it sparingly in small patches when a baby is exposed to sun, and to wipe it off. Or you can simply keep babies covered with clothing and out of direct sun. This is good common sense advice to be heeded by the rest of us, too. While sunscreens offer temporary protection, the best defense against skin cancer, premature aging and other effects is limiting sun exposure with strategies like these:

  • Avoid direct sun between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm when sunlight is strongest.
  • Remember that sun exposure is cumulative. Taking a shade break does not reset your sun clock.
  • Limit your exposure to reflective surfaces—sand, tile, water, snow, etc.—that bounce UV rays into shaded areas.
  • Know that UVA radiation stays relatively constant regardless of the time of day or cloud cover.
  • Use umbrellas—a big one at the beach and a smaller parasol for walks.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, and long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or caftans made from light fabrics that you can’t see through. Consider UV-protective fabrics, which are specially woven to block sun but remain cool.
  • When it comes to choosing an SPF, more isn’t always more. Experts suggest multi spectrum products above SPF 30 and below SPF 50. Very high SPFs don’t offer more protection and they do give people a false sense of security.
  • Apply a mineral sunscreen generously. Reapply it every two hours and/or after being in water.  Make sure you know if your sunscreen is water resistant to 40 minutes, 80 minutes, or not at all. Keep in mind kids can get wet even if not swimming.
  • Read labels to avoid retinyl palmitate, a common ingredient found in sunscreens; studies from the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) have suggested a possible skin cancer link in high doses.