Sunscreens - friend or foe?

Despite the fact that more people use sunscreen than ever before, the rate of skin cancer continues to rise. Research conducted by the Environmental Working Group in 2011, revealed that the great majority of sunscreens do not protect against both UVA and UVB rays and in addition, may contain chemicals that affect our hormones, damage the skin and in some cases, actually increase the rate of skin cancer. There are essentially two types of sunscreens: mineral and non-mineral formulations or a combination of these.

  1. Mineral formulations that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are generally effective against UVA rays, however some contain nanoparticles that can be toxic if they penetrate the skin 
  2. Non-mineral sunscreens contain oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, and avobenzone. Many are associated with adverse health effects
Oxybenzone an ingredient found in over 50% of sunscreens (and in the blood of 96% of the US population) can trigger allergic reactions, is a potential hormone disruptor and penetrates the skin in relatively large amounts with many experts now recommending that it should not be used on children (EWG, 2011). 

Worst sunscreens

Whilst it is great to see that the majority of Australian sunscreens are broad spectrum, most contain octyl methoxycinnamate as well as artificial fragrances. For a list of the worst brands of sunscreens, click here. Avoid sprays and powders as they are lung irritants. In addition, avoid these ingredients:
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC)
  • Benzophenone-3 (oxybenzone)
  • 3-Benzylidene camphor
  • Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC)
  • Padimate O
  • Retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) found in 30% of US sunscreens may speed the development of skin tumours when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight (National Toxicology Program, 2009)
  • Fragrance - many contain hormone disrupting chemicals
  • Nanoparticles (here is the research conducted by Choice and Friends of the Earth)
  • SPF above 50+. To read what's wrong with high SPF, click here.
After an extensive search of sunscreen products, three came up trumps:
Soleo Organics, Banana Boat Mineral Protect Sensitive
and WOTNOT Sunscreen.

Best sunscreens

A sunscreen needs to be broad spectrum (effective against both UV rays) and not expose you to harmful chemicals. Mineral sunscreens are generally better for this reason. The Environmental Working Group (2001), recommends sunscreens that contain the following active ingredients: Mexoryl SX (ecamsule), Avobenzone, Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M and Octisalate, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Be mindful however that some of these may contain nanoparticles (see the research conducted by Choice, 2010). My top three choices are:

For a list of the best brands of sunscreens, click here.

How to protect yourself from skin cancer

  • Don't rely on sunscreens to do the job! 
  • Check the UV Index Level every day and avoid midday sun.
  • Seek shade where ever possible.
  • Cover up: hat, clothes and sunglasses are important

Dont go overboard - the sun is our greatest healer. We all need sun exposure to lift our mood (enhance serotonin) and activate Vitamin D in our skin. Early morning and late afternoon sun is vital to our mental and physical health.

Useful Websites

Click here to find out the UV Index level today.
Get the UV Skin Cancer Alert Card.
Download the free UV Alert SunSmart ap.
Friends of the Earth. Safe Sunscreen Guide.Summer 2011-2012.

References

 
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