Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What You Should Know About Sunscreen (Part 1)

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Before you slather on the sunscreen this summer, there’s some crucial things you should know.  I was outraged when I learned many sunscreens are not stable in sunlight, do not protect against UVA, or contain potentially dangerous chemicals that are absorbed into the body. I’m really passionate about this topic and want to help people choose an effective, safe sunscreen! Here are a few facts that are pretty shocking:

·        Did you know that many sunscreens sold in the U.S. barely protect against UVA, even if they claim they are “broad spectrum”?

·        Did you know many sunscreens are not photostable, meaning they break down in sunlight (are ineffective) and produce free radicals that can damage skin?

·        Did you know the SPF number only rates how well the sunscreen protects against UVB rays, not UVA (which are just as, if not more important!)

·        Did you know some of the common chemical sunscreen filters absorb into the body, are stored up in body tissues and disrupt hormones?

I’m not trying to scare you away from using sunscreen – it’s important to wear a sunscreen daily that protects against UVA radiation. UVA rays penetrate the skin deeper than UVB, causing DNA damage to the cells; as a result skin is more prone to develop skin cancer, blotchy hyperpigmentation and wrinkles. It’s the daily incidental exposure to UVA radiation that results in most damage, and UVA rays penetrate windows too – so don’t think you aren’t getting sun damage  when you’re in the car or sitting inside. UVA rays are around in greater intensity than UVB all year round (even in winter) so it’s a necessity to find a good sunscreen and wear it!

If you don't believe me, look at the photo below. This is a truck driver who got extensive sun damage from the UVA radiation through his driver's side window:

Image from here

How can you know if your sunscreen is protecting you against UVA rays? The “SPF” rating won’t tell you, because it only rates level of UVB protection. You’ll have to look at the label to know what the active ingredients (sunscreen filters) are.

There are two families of sunscreen filters – chemical and physical. Chemical filters absorb the UV radiation before it can penetrate the skin, and physical filters (also called mineral sunscreens) reflect it so that it doesn’t damage the skin. Examples of physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. All other filters are chemical.

There are only a handful of sunscreen ingredients/filters available in the U.S. that protects against UVA. To adequately protect against the full range of UVA, your sunscreen must have one of these ingredients:           

-        Zinc Oxide - at least about 10% for decent protection

-        Avobenzone (also called Parsol 1789) AND octocrylene - avobenzone is inherently unstable and needs to be stabilized by octocrylene. If it’s not, it is NOT protecting you from UVA damage and could be damaging your skin.

-        Meroxyl SX (also called Ecamsule) and Meroxyl XL - only a handful of sunscreens in the U.S. are available with this

-        Tinsorb S or Tinosorb M  - not available in the U.S., only in Canada, Europe and Asia

Here are some things to AVOID:

-        Oxybenzone – this chemical is pretty controversial, and personally I choose to stay away from it. It absorbs easily into the body and builds up in body tissues, where it remains a long time. It is a known hormone disruptor and also produces free radicals (which damage cells) when exposed to sunlight. I would not recommend using anything with this often and not at all on children. The Europen Union requires companies to label any product with the warning “contains oxybenzone” because they are unsure of its health risks! In any case, oxybenzone doesn’t protect against the whole UVA spectrum anyway, so it’s not a good choice.

-        Avobenzone combined with octinoxate (also called Octyl Methoxycinnamate) - Octinoxate destabilizes avobenzone. If the sunscreen has these two chemicals combined is it NOT giving you stable protection. It may cause free radical damage to the skin as the sunscreen breaks down (not to mention leave you with a sun burn)!

You probably will find some sunscreens claiming to be “broad spectrum” that don’t contain the ingredients I recommended above. That’s because companies can claim “broad spectrum” protection even if the sunscreen is only protecting against a fraction of the UVA spectrum!

Take a look at your sunscreen bottles and see if they are broad spectrum and protecting you against UVA. Even if they are, the amount of protection may not be that great, which I’ll cover in the rest of this series. In Part 2 I’ll also discuss whether physical or chemical sunscreens are better, the risks of nano-particles in physical sunscreen, and how to choose a daily sunscreen that’s right for you! Stay tuned…this is important stuff!


I should note that I’ve been reading about sunscreens extensively for almost three years, so I did not take this information from any particular source; however, here are some references you may find useful (though I don’t agree with everything the link says since it lists oxybenzone as a good filter):


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