Posted by: hagengreen | August 18, 2010

Sunscreen or Sunburn? Don’t Get Burned.

Why does it seem like nearly every day we learn something new and dangerous about something that’s supposed to be good for us? We’ve come so far so quick, we end up scratching the surface of understanding what we are really doing. It’s like stepping first before looking: you know you’re moving forward but you can’t tell if you’re stepping into a ditch or not until you already did it. By that time, it’s too late.

Since changing my diet to be pescatarian, I’ve took a hard look at everything I put into my body. Instead at looking at the FDA’s Nutrition Facts (which can be very misleading in our decision making), I look at ingredients. While the big food manufacturers can lie to your face, it’s at least easy to know what not to eat. If there’s anything in the ingredients that I couldn’t grow or make myself or that my ancestors ate hundreds of years ago, I’m going to really think hard about putting that thing they call food into my mouth. Yes, fast food is essentially a no go. I’m pretty sure you can make a decent bomb out of some of the ingredients that end up in fast food. I digress. I’m not here to complain about fast food, just not this time.

After scrutiny on my dietary choices, I took to not only what I put into my body, but what goes on my body. It’s just as important. Our skin is an organ and should be treated no differently than things inside. Skin absorb many things you rub on it such as lotion, deodorant, Tiger Balm, or even Nicotine. Those products ultimately end up in our bloodstream. Besides deodorant (of which I’ve already switched to a natural variety: check out Hugo Naturals), I’m not a user of any of those products. So I took to the one I use nearly daily, especially in the summer. You guessed it: sunscreen.

We slather it all over our faces and arms, merrily going on our way into the sun without a care in the world – feeling like we’re doing our skin good. Here comes the million-dollar question: did we really do good or are we actually doing harm? I’m not convinced either way. And I hope to convince you that you can’t be convinced. In other words, you won’t be sure. My effect will be to increase your awareness, and then you can decide what, if anything, you do to implement change. The amusing part of all this is I actually have a few bones to toss you along the way. It’s ultimately up to you to decide.

Before we get into the sunscreen discussion, let’s touch on the no sunscreen scenario. Say you never wear sunscreen for reasons varying from laziness, to inconvenience, or even because you think it’s cool to darken your skin because you think you look better. (That’s how tanning salons stay in business in the Northwest!) If you darken your skin by laying in the sun or using a tanning bed, you are putting chips down on developing melanoma. I’m not saying any sun is bad sun, what I am saying is intentional prolonged sun exposure is not healthy. Darker skinned individuals have the luxury of having a higher tolerance of solar radiation, but they are by no means immune from melanoma. (On a side note, did you know that it’s all the rage in India to lighten skin? It’s true. This whole lighten/darken thing is because people want what they don’t have and look to cultural norms. Brunettes usually want to be blonde. Why can’t people just be happy with what the almighty gave them?!)

The light that you see coming from the sky isn’t what causes a sunburn. It’s the stuff you can’t see; that heat sensation you feel. That’s called UVA and UVB, also known as solar radiation, folks. The UV spectrum is just beyond the color violet in the rainbow, but it’s not as high of a frequency as XRay – which we all know from a visit to a doctor’s office. Perhaps you’ve heard of UVC? Yes, there is such a thing. UVC is actually the most dangerous type of light to our bodies, however the atmosphere filters out nearly all of that frequency of light.

Interestingly, UVA does not cause sunburn, but can increase your chances for melanoma. UVA was once considered less harmful to humans, but today we know that it indirectly damages DNA through the creation of free radicals. UVA gives you an immediate, but short term tan by stimulating the epidermis to generate melanin – a darkening agent.

UVB is what sunscreens are great at blocking and protecting you from sunburn. The ironic part with UVB is that your body needs some of it to generate Vitamin D. The generally accepted rule is 15 minutes a day all over the body except your face. (Your face should get very little sun as the skin is too thin and sensitive and results in premature wrinkles.) If you wear sunscreen all the time, you’re actually blocking the UVB rays that triggers the body’s Vitamin D synthesis. In addition to missing the good ol’ D, you’re probably also slathering chemicals over your body. This is where things get complicated… and interesting.

Sunscreens are really complex products to put together. Just imagine building something that has a Sun Protection Factor claim (more on that in a moment), ought to be waterproof and sweatproof, leave the tube as liquid and dry on the skin, get absorbed into or stick onto the skin, and all the while not being toxic. I think most sunscreens get the first few right but lack on the last one. What’s so great about protecting you against the sun when you’re putting chemicals into your body? So I began the quest to understand the various types of sunscreen options, what they offer, and their health implications. Could it actually be harmful to use sunscreen? I set out to get answers.


There are two major types of sunscreens: chemical and mineral. How do you know which one you’re using? Thanks to the FDA, there’s a “Drug Facts” section on the sunscreen that lists “Active Ingredients”. Go ahead, go grab your bottle and take a look. I’ll wait here… back already? What did it say? Did you see avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, or octinoxate? Those are chemicals that help absorb and dissipate solar radiation. Some of them are generally safe (actually, I should say “haven’t been proven dangerous”) for our bodies, but some of them may give us a bit more than we bargained for. Here’s a breakdown of these specific chemicals. The more dangerous chemicals are listed in red.

avobenzone creates free radicals in the body and breaks down within an hour of direct sun exposure.

homosalate is probably the safest ingredient on the list.

octisalate is an oily, colorless liquid that absorbs UVB rays. Also used in cosmetics.

octocrylene does the job of absorbing light and turning it into heat within the skin.

oxybenzone is one of the most controversial chemicals in sunscreen, despite its powerful ability to absorb both UVA and UVB rays. In a 2008 study by the CDC, nearly 97% of the people tested in the study had oxybenzone present in urine samples. 

octinoxate is another friendly chemical that is toxic to living cells. There’s a study that showed toxicity in mice cells at lower concentrations than found in sunscreen. Yet another study showed that human skin doesn’t absorb enough octinoxate to get to toxic levels.

None of the chemicals listed above are alone sufficient to block UVA and UVB rays from damaging your skin, yet in a cocktail with the right proportions, they can be very efficient indeed. That’s why we don’t get burned when using (and reapplying) sunscreen. They do their job and do it well. But they go beyond their call of duty. Octocrylene, avobenzone, and oxybenzone all create free radicals as a result of light exposure that has been connected to an increase in malignant melanoma in sunscreen users, compared to non-sunscreen users. Yes, you read that right. There are studies that show sunscreen users may develop melanoma at higher rates than those who don’t wear sunscreen. These chemicals that indirectly cause melanoma are in a class of chemicals known as photocarcinogens.

Interesting, so while I’m preventing sunburn, I’m also polluting my epidermis with toxic chemicals. Those chemicals can damage DNA in a given cell – and when that cell reproduces with the damaged DNA, a bad cell is created which can be cancerous. Usually your body detects this bad cell and kills it via apoptosis. But as we get older and our immune systems aren’t what they used to be or they’re compromised, a bad cell or two can stick around. What it seems to come down to is whether you want to take a dosage of toxicity or sunburn. Is it a black and white decision? I don’t believe so. Our ancestors didn’t have sunscreen. But they also didn’t live, on average, anywhere near as long as we’re all living today.

Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia on the potential health implications of exposure to chemicals in sunscreen:

Adverse health effects may be associated with some synthetic compounds in sunscreens.[41] In 2007 two studies by the CDC highlighted concerns about the sunscreen chemical oxybenzone (benzophenone-3). The first detected the chemicals in greater than 95% of 2000 Americans tested, while the second found that mothers with high levels of oxybenzone in their bodies were more likely to give birth to underweight baby girls.[42]

Pretty scary if you ask me. I don’t want that in my body. I don’t want that in my wife’s body. How can this chemical continue to be used in manufacturing sunscreen?! Where’s consumerism?

What to do about toxic sunscreens? We can and should petitioning the FDA to impose stronger regulations on sunscreen sold in our country. But until the FDA decides that it’s a priority and takes action, consumers will need to arm themselves with knowledge and vote with their wallets. As consumers, we all have choices in nearly everything we buy. The Internet has shrunk world markets to the screen you’re now looking at right now. Yet we’re also human so we fall into the path of least resistance when making decisions, even those as intimate as our own health. There’s a McDonalds on every corner, but 10 miles away is a Whole Foods. It costs more not only to drive to Whole Foods, but you’re going to spend 30-40% more. Which one are you going to? It’s so easy to get a regular sunscreen loaded with chemicals – even if it’s a high SPF factor which is total BS anyway. So you’ll need to go out of your way and cough up a bit more to get that healthy sunscreen. (Yes, Whole Foods does sell natural sunscreen. In fact, I highly recommend using their test bottles to see what works best for you!)

Natural sunscreens are those with no chemicals listed in the Drug Facts section on the back of the bottle. Most natural sunscreens use Zinc Oxide and that’s all you’ll find. Examples of these pure natural sunscreens include Badger and Elemental Herbs brands. I’m biased to these brands as I use them myself, but I know of and have seen other brands that also offer wonderful options. In addition to the “naturalness” of these sunscreens, they also include antioxidants to help flush out free radicals that are created as a result of sun damage since no sunscreen is 100% effective. Now let’s look at the other side of these seemingly miracle products.

One of the biggest challenges with choosing a 100% natural sunscreen is finding one that doesn’t leave you looking like a ghost or like you put on too much makeup! The Badger brand doesn’t run in very well, so leaves you looking a bit pale. For men, any facial hair creates white streaks which makes you look almost scary. (Hopefully Halloween is a sunny day!) I bought the Elemental Herbs (EH) Sunscreen Sport to replace the Badger sunscreen for my face. EH incorporates Iron Oxide and Shea Butter to give the sunscreen a skin tone tint which helps it blend in much better on the face. If you look up close, it appears as if there’s a light caking on the face. But it’s much less obvious than the Badger. The appearance of natural sunscreens on the skin is one of the most challenging aspects of natural sunscreens because they do not get absorbed into the skin – so there’s got to be something sitting on top which is then visible. As I mentioned earlier, I highly recommend you visit the nearest Whole Foods (or comparable natural market) and test out options on your face. The other downside to natural sunscreens is their cost. Sometimes it’s prohibitive. I spent $19 on a 3oz bottle of the Elemental Herbs. That’s a lot of money. On the plus side, I rest assured I’m doing the best I can for my skin. I can’t say I physically feel any different from not applying chemicals to my skin. It’s akin to taking out insurance for a rainy day many years from now. I hope that when I’m old I can look back and be thankful for the choices I made when I was younger. (On a side note, my grandparents are my role models for growing old. They are active and witty! I hope one day I can be just like them.)

A word of caution: beware of wannabe natural products! Some sunscreens look natural, but are not. An example is Alba Botanica’s Sport Sunblock. It says “Natural Protection” and “Very Emollient” – however “natural” does not have an official meaning and “emollient” means soothing. At least the Alba brand chooses the healthiest chemicals of the bunch, so it’s no doubt much safer than most brands. But it’s still chemical-laden. It may not be bad for you, but it’s not 100% natural either. There’s no right or wrong in choosing this sunscreen, but the consumer has the right to know the facts and decide.

So once you’ve decided which way to go on a sunscreen, the next step is to look at it’s protective factor, best known as its SPF. The shocking fact about SPF is it only tells you about its UVB-blocking effectiveness; that number tells you nothing about its ability to block UVA. Europe already has a star system to tells consumers about a sunscreen’s UVA blocking power. Again, the United States has fallen further behind our brethren amid our own bureaucracy. Speaking of falling behind, here’s another example:

Sunscreen products containing photostable filters like Drometrizole trisiloxane, Bisoctrizole or Bemotrizinol have been available for many years throughout the world but are not yet available in the U.S., whereas another high quality filter, Ecamsule, has also been available in the U.S. since 2006.[20]

The rest of the world has access to sunscreens with photostable chemicals. Photostable chemicals don’t adversely react with light when in contact with cells in our skin. Many of those chemicals are considered safe backed by numerous studies. So why can’t we get them? Doesn’t the future of our healthcare and financial systems depend on making small but critical changes such as this? This isn’t just political, it’s beyond politics: this just doesn’t make logical sense to me.

Oh wait, yes, technology! Nano stuff is all the rage lately. Now that we can manipulate chemicals down to the atomic level, we can do cool things like make particles that weren’t possible through heating, cooling, and mixing alone. Technology to the rescue!

Concerns have been raised regarding the use of nanoparticles in sunscreen.[46] Theoretically, sunscreen nanoparticles could increase rates of certain cancers, or diseases similar to those caused by asbestos.[47]

We tried to solve yet another problem with high-tech and again didn’t understand the implications of doing so. Until we can get a grasp on bleeding edge technology like nanoparticles, we must not use it on or in humans. There’s just too much at stake. But then again, that’s how free markets work. Sad but true. Money before safety. That’s life, but again, consumers can and should protect themselves. All hope is not lost.

My conclusion: typical suncreens prevent sunburn, but may help advance melanoma because of indirect damage via free radicals. We can and should turn to natural sunscreen to prevent both sunburn and cellular damage. As more and more people turn to natural sunscreens, the more ubiquitous they will become. That will wake up the current market leaders such as Banana Boat and Coppertone and tell them to stop polluting our bodies and start doing what’s best for our health, country, and future.

Further reading:

Ah, some promising news from the last link. Also some not so shocking news.

Unfortunately, too often, people use too little, or the wrong kind, and end up doing more damage. And while the FDA is finally putting into place federal sunscreen regulations, you won’t be seeing products approved to more-strict FDA standards until 2012. That’s why it’s critical that you think about and research the creams you put on your skin, just as you would the food you put in your body.

This year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) looked at more than 1,400 skincare products including 500 sunscreens specifically designed for sport and beach use. What the EWG found was shocking: around 60 percent of those 500 sunscreens contain oxybenzone – a potentially harmful hormone-disrupting compound that penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. The EWG also warns against sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate, a type of vitamin A found in 41 percent of sunscreens. The FDA is investigating whether retinyl palmitate accelerates skin damage and increases skin cancer risk when applied to skin exposed to sunlight.

According to the Environmental According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2010 study only 8 percent – or 39 – of the 500 sunscreens tested are recommended. Of those, we’ve narrowed down the 21 best listed, based on efficacy and purity of ingredients.

Read more:


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