Do You Know What’s in Your Sunscreen?

TanAs I write this, I am happily looking out my office window at the most beautiful sunlit day! As is my habit, I like to get out there and take a long walk on days like these to soak up that glorious sun and fresh air, but I always make sure I do something first: put on sunscreen. Now, I know that we have all heard that we need to use sunscreen and many of us do, but let me ask you, do you know what is in your sunscreen and if the ingredients are safe? First, let’s do a short review on how sunscreens work. Sunscreens alter how your skin responds to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The ingredients in sunscreen absorb, reflect or scatter UV rays. For many years, the sunscreens that were available were only effective at screening out UVB radiation, because this is the type of radiation that was known to cause sunburn and lead to skin cancer. However, it has been found that UVA radiation is also harmful. Now all sunscreens will provide UVB protection, but not all provide enough protection from UVA rays. SPF numbers tell you how much protection you are getting from the UVB rays, however, they tell you nothing about the level of UVA protection you will get.

That gorgeous, golden tan that you get is caused by UVA radiation that triggers the growth of melanin in your skin.  That not so nice sunburn that you may have experienced is predominantly caused by UVB exposure. So it’s logical that if we block UVB radiation and allow UVA we can tan and not burn. But, and there’s always a but, overexposure to UVA light is also damaging to skin. It is linked to immune suppression, skin aging and even cancer. Yikes! Unlike sunburn, you don’t get an immediate indication that you’ve had too much sun. UVA overexposure is much more subtle because the damage to your skin adds up over the years. So, your sunscreen will need to provide broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) coverage to protect you against sunburn and other long-term skin damage.

There are two types of available sunscreens: physical and chemical.

Physical sunscreens are the safest and most effective available. This type of sunscreen works by forming an opaque film that reflects or scatters UV light before it can penetrate your skin. The principle components are mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Now, chemical sunscreens work differently. They will absorb UVA or UVB rays before they can cause any damage and they will contain one or more ingredients such as avobenzone or oxybenzone. Please note that all chemical sunscreens will generally contain at least one sunscreen chemical considered to be a potential hormone disrupter and most offer only moderate or weak UVA protection. There have also been concerns raised about a vitamin A compound called retinyl palmitate that is found in many chemical sunscreens. This chemical, when applied to skin that is exposed to sunlight, could accelerate the development of skin tumors and lesions. The very thing you are trying to prevent! If you want to check out the safety of the ingredients in your sunscreen, go to the Environmental Working Group website at and check out their cosmetics database.

If that wasn’t enough information, here’s more. One other thing to look for is nano or micro-sized particles. Many companies will use nanoparticles because they are more transparent when applied to the skin. Why is this an issue? Well, there are concerns about the increase of toxic effects as particle size decreases due to the potential for these small particles to absorb through the skin and bypass our body’s natural defense mechanisms. So, watch out for this stuff because the sunscreen industry has integrated nanoparticle zinc oxide or titanium dioxide into nearly all mineral sunscreen products. Labeling is not a reliable thing here because, there are no labeling requirements for nanoparticle use so it’s hard to avoid them.  The most reliable way to choose a non-nano product is the color; larger particles are visible and will leave a faint white coloring. Also, if a product label says it is transparent, then that is an indicator of nanoparticle use in the product.  So, enjoy the sun, but be safe.

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