During many years working in fragile tropical ecosystems, I have wrestled with the knotty dilemma of selecting sunscreen. One in five Americans will have a brush with skin cancer: a million cases are diagnosed each year. How do we protect ourselves and our children from UVA & UVB rays while not leaving behind a damaging chemical footprint?
The answer is to tread carefully. On my recent trip to a popular big box retail store, every sunscreen for sale there failed to meet conservative safety criteria I use for my family. Just as you would with any skin care product, seek no chemical fragrance (they can contain carcinogens) and relatively few active ingredients. Here are some more things to know before you go basking.
The active ingredients in sunscreens fall into two categories—chemical and mineral (or physical barrier). Chemical barrier sunscreens contain PABA, octinoxate, octisalate, oxybenzone, avobenzone (aka parsol 1789), and 4-methylbenzylidene. There are significant health and environmental concerns surrounding these chemicals.
The mineral class consists of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. This is the type of sunscreen I prefer; it’s more natural, biodegradable, and carries a longer track record (60s lifeguards with white noses = titanium dioxide). Choose a formula that does not rely on nanoparticles for smoothness, as these may damage your lungs (you may have to call the company to find out for sure). Look for a sunscreen with 15-20% active ingredient; that determines SPF (sun protection factor), and it’s what you’re paying for.
ECO-IMPACT. What exactly is the environmental impact of sunscreen? It’s largely unmeasured, because no one tracks the amount of chemicals used in sunscreen manufacture, let alone the impacts of their mining (significant), use and disposal. But in some sensitive conservation areas–notably in Australia and Mexico–chemical sunscreens are banned because they catalyze the activation of a virus which causes coral bleaching and accelerates reef death.
HEALTH IMPACT. What health criteria should be considered when choosing sunscreen? Good news: a valuable nonprofit resource, the Environmental Working Group, has summarized them. Their sunscreen database rates relative safety & effectiveness of ingredients. For a real eye opener, type your current sunscreen into EWG’s sunscreen database.
Bad news: only 14% of the 882 sunscreen products tested met the group’s safety and effectiveness criteria. I just tossed out two bottles after checking their ingredient panels. Health risks of chemical sunscreens include hormone disruption, toxin build-up, and free radical damage to skin (from those tiny nanoparticles again).
A relatively new ingredient, ecamsule, created a small flurry of interest in the media recently. This chemical, a UV blocker, was recently approved by the FDA for sale in the US under its trade name, mexoryl. It’s expensive, comes packaged with a large number of other chemical ingredients, and rates a 4 on the EWG rankings–but hey, it’s your money.
GREEN TEA. Animal studies have shown that green tea offers protection from skin cancer. Both animal and human studies have credibly demonstrated that topical green tea formulations reduce sun damage. Green tea appears to exert sun damage protection by quenching free radicals and reducing inflammation rather than by blocking UV rays. Therefore, green tea may synergistically enhance sun protection when used in addition to a sunscreen. I’ve noticed it also helps make mineral formulas apply more smoothly.
If you spend more than 10 minutes a day outside, consider using an everyday moisturizer with zinc oxide and green tea in organic ingredient base. Remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours and after swimming for optimal protection.
TOP PICKS. The low-impact camper in me dreams of leave-no-trace sunscreen that will do no harm to humans or the environment. We’re not there quite yet, but here are some solid products that will lower the risk of sunburn and not ‘burn’ the local environment. Those with an asterisk (*) won’t burn a hole in your wallet either. And please remember your hat!
Badger Chemical Free SPF 30*
California Baby No Fragrance SPF 30
JASON Chemical Free SPF 30*
Juice Beauty Green Apple Moisturizer SPF 20 or 15
Lavera Baby & Children SPF 30
Skinceuticals Physical UV defense
Please check back in two weeks for my first post in a series on creating a healthy green kitchen.