I researched and wrote this article for a health website mainly because I was personally concerned with the sunscreen I put on my skin and wanted to find out what the best product was to use. It is scary to think of the gallons of chemicals that we have put on our skin over the years that are contained in sunscreens. It’s probably best not to think about it.
Choosing the Best Sunscreen: An Update
Most adults will remember the days of summer when tanning oil or even tanning butter were used to get that perfect tan. That first sunburn of summer was a badge of honor. Now, especially since the ozone layer depletion scare of the 1980s, the focus for cosmetic companies has been the blocking of the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays. However, new research suggests that the chemicals used in today’s sunscreens may do more harm than good.
UVA, UVB and UVC rays all contribute to the development of skin cancer. 1. UVA rays are not blocked by the ozone layer and penetrate deepest into the skin. UVB rays are partially absorbed by the ozone layer and penetrate less deep into the skin. UVC rays are almost all absorbed by the ozone layer. However, as the ozone layer thins, more UVC rays will penetrate the skin.
When the depletion of the ozone layer first entered the news, choosing a sunscreen meant choosing one with a high sun protection factor (SPF) against only UVB rays that burned and damaged the skin. Research soon focused on the UVA rays that don’t cause sunburn but penetrate deepest into the skin, thus causing premature aging, cell damage and skin cancer. 2.
Cosmetic companies soon developed “broad spectrum” sunscreens to block out both of the rays.
Recent changes by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have put additional pressure on cosmetic companies to provide the public with clear guidelines for sunscreens. The FDA plans to limit the maximum SPF to 50 as there is insufficient data to suggest that higher numbered sunscreens offer more protection. The FDA has also banned the use of the words “sunblock”, “waterproof” and “sweatproof” on the labels because the claims are inherently false. 3.
It is important to understand that your skin is porous. Almost anything you apply to your skin will absorb into your body. Protecting yourself from UVA and UVB rays by applying a sunscreen will require you to do some research on the chemicals found in many sunscreens.
Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing harmful UV radiation. However, some of these chemicals have shown to be harmful once they are absorbed into the skin. Research indicates that some may disrupt the body’s hormone systems and interfere with sexual development 4. Also, as chemical sunscreens break down in the sun and become ineffective, they release free radicals (by-products that cause cell damage). 5.
Ingredients on a bottle of sunscreen contain many unfamiliar chemicals. Of all of them, Ecamsule (or Mexoryl SX) appears to be best of the lot with low skin penetration and high UVA ray absorption. 6. On its own, Avobenzone (or Parsol 1789) is an unstable chemical. When it is added to octinoxate, it becomes even more unstable. Avobenzone must be paired with octocrylene to become stable. 7. The stability of a sunscreen chemical is essential so that it doesn’t break down in the sun. For the consumer, it becomes an exercise in chemistry to determine what is safe and what is not.
Consumers can simply choose physical sunscreens like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to avoid all the confusion over chemical sunscreens. These minerals are often found in chemical sunscreens for added protection. Physical sunscreens completely reflect UV radiation. It is important to remember that because our skin is porous, these two elements will also absorb into our bodies, but in minuscule amounts.
The benefits of physical sunscreens far outweigh those of chemical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens are stable in sunlight, don’t appear to penetrate the skin and offer excellent UVA protection. 8. If consumers don’t mind the thick consistency and the pale white appearance after it is applied, physical sunscreens are probably the safer choice.
We have always been told that overexposure to the sun results in a sunburn, skin damage, premature aging and skin cancer. Staying out of the sun when the sun is at its strongest (usually between 10 am and 2 pm) is the best choice. When in the sun, cover up with a long sleeve shirt, long pants and a hat; use sunscreen; or a combination of both. Knowing the effects of sun damage and learning about chemical and physical sunscreens is also vital.
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