Nasty ingredients found in sunscreens – what are the alternatives?

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Nasty ingredients found in sunscreens – what are the alternatives?

The truth about Sunscreens

We are told constantly to protect our skin with sunscreens, but just how safe are the ingredients in your average bottle of sunscreen.

New Zealand now has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, and the government routinely warns Kiwis of the consequences the hole in the ozone layer can have on their skin. The Cancer Society therefore encourages the use of sunscreens and lotions to protect the skin from ultraviolet lights (UV). Yet, sunscreens are classified as beauty products, sold among cosmetics, and do not legally have to comply with any pharmaceutical standards that would protect the skin.

A study made in 2007 by the United States Environmental Working Group shows that traditional sunscreens contain several harmful agents. The most common and controversial one, oxybenzone, is classified as a hormone disruptor and allergen. It also has an impact on the environment, by destroying coral reefs and disrupting fishes’ reproductive cycle. Other harmful ingredients, such as octinoxate, associated with thyroid damage, or octocrylene, that can trigger skin allergies, are also frequently found in sunscreens.

So, what would be an efficient alternative to traditional sunscreens?

If you are going to be exposed for a long time, and do not have the possibility to cover yourself up with a hat and clothes, the safest protection would be the use of mineral sunscreens. They contain ingredients from minerals, such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which are not harmful to the body or the environment. Zinc has even been associated with skin health.

Two types of UV damage the skin: UVA and UVB. Chemical sunscreens protect against UVB: their SPF indicates their level of protection against this type of UV. However, unless the bottle is advertised as a “broad spectrum” lotion, it does not act against UVA. The ingredients mineral sunscreens contain, on the other hand, protect against both types.

Not only do mineral sunscreens contain different ingredients from traditional ones, but they also act in a distinct way. While traditional sunscreens absorb the UV lights inside the skin and convert them into heat, mineral sunscreens do not penetrate the skin. They form a layer on the epidermis that reflects and deflects UVA and B. They act as a barrier to light, and are therefore called physical sunscreens, as opposed to chemical ones.

Still, no product is perfect: sweat and water easily rid the skin of the mineral layer. Therefore physical sunscreens need to be re-applied frequently if you sweat or swim a lot, more often than every two hours, as is recommended for traditional sunscreens. However, contrary to chemical sunscreens, which need to be applied 30 minutes before exposure, mineral sunscreens act straight away. Aesthetically, it tends to leave a rather obvious white layer on the skin; to prevent this from happening, some brands chose to use ‘nano’ particles, very small particles of minerals. This, however, has been the subject of some controversy. These nano particles might be able to penetrate the skin and, in high dose, cause cell damages. However, studies have not, so far, shown nano particles to have an impact on health.

Written by Solene Bertrand – Student of Naturopathic and Herbal Medicine at Wellpark College

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