All-Natural Sunscreens: Know Your Best Protection

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Protect Your Skin.

Although we need to pay attention to sun protection year-round, the summer months typically bring more time in the sun, especially at peak periods of sun intensity. We’re also tend to expose more skin during the hot summer months, further increasing the impact of harmful UV rays.  Unless you can find a way to avoid the sun entirely, clearly the best form of sun protection but not always practical, sunscreens and sunblocks are an essential part of a safe, healthy summer.

Evidence has shown the importance of protecting ourselves from both UVA and UVB sunlight, which requires broad spectrum sunscreens. Broad spectrum means the product protects against both UVA radiation that causes permanent damage and aging to the skin, and against UVB rays that cause sunburns.

Although sun exposure allows our bodies to make vitamin D, it takes very little exposure to meet that need. Because sunscreens with even the highest SPF protection can’t filter out all of the sun’s rays, using sunscreens doesn’t keep you from the sun’s benefits, but still provides critical protection for your skin. Taking Vitamin D supplements is a safer way to get the nutrient, as it doesn’t increase skin cancer risk and generally allows you to control the amount of vitamin D you get each day.

Sunscreen’s Chemical Concerns

While any effective sunscreen is better than no sun protection, many of us are also interested in reducing or eliminating the toxic chemicals we come into contact with.  Typical sunscreens contain at least a few ingredients thought to be toxic, several of which are still under study to determine their long-term effects. That toxicity becomes even more concerning when we consider that those chemicals are being absorbed directly into the skin, often over large areas.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tests hundreds of sunscreens for safety and efficacy, and in a review of 800 tested sunscreens, they found that only 25% did not contain at least one harmful or potentially harmful chemical.  Although it’s been approved by the FDA for infants over 6 months, the EWG and and other toxicology experts believe that the chemical oxybenzone is linked to hormone disruption and may damage cells that potentially lead to skin cancer. However, the American Academy of Dermatology has deemed oxybenzone as a safe chemical. With competing opinions, consumers are left to decide.

The Environmental Working Group also warns consumers about the potential risk of retinyl palminate and advises against using products that contain this specific type of vitamin A. Government-funded studies have found that, in mice, retinyl palminate may increase risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin. Studies of the effects on humans is still inclusive.

There are additional chemicals that consumers should try to avoid when selecting a sunscreen, again for their potential role in hormone disruption or in increasing cancer risk :

  • Octyl-methoyl-cinnamates (OMC)
  • Octyl-dimethyl-para-amin-benzoic Acid (OD-PABA
  • 4-methy-benzyldencamphor (4-MBC)
  • Benzophenone-3
  • Homosalate (HMS)

“Water-Resistant” Is Not Waterproof: There Is No Waterproof

The FDA has placed tighter regulations on how products are labeled. Manufacturers are now required  to identify on the front label if the product provides broad spectrum coverage.  Further, brands can no longer claim to be sweat-proof or waterproof. Sunscreen is never waterproof or sweat-proof, and the new labeling guidelines use “water-resistant” to eliminate confusion. If a sunscreen is labeled water-resistant, you’ll find that it indicates either “40 minutes” or “80 minutes” after the phrase “water-resistant” so that you have a guideline to how long your skin can be wet or sweaty before you need to reapply.

Is There a “Perfect” Sunscreen?

According to the Environmental Working Group, a perfect sunscreen would “contain only active and inactive ingredients that are proven to be completely safe for both adults and children.” They also note that no sunscreen on the U.S. market meets that criteria, making it a challenge for consumers weighing the pros and cons in comparing products. The best bet is to avoid the questionable chemicals noted above. After that, look for products with the least number of questionable chemicals.  

While zinc oxide and titanium are generally considered safe and effective minerals for their use in sunscreens, the EWG urges caution when considering spray or powder forms of these sunscreens due to likelihood of inhalation.  Skin penetration of these minerals appears to be low in healthy skin, but opportunities for inhalation create a much more direct route of exposure to these compounds. If you choose the benefits of a mineral sunscreen, choose a zinc- or titanium-containing lotion over a powder. If you do use a pump or spray sunscreen, you can lower the inhalation risk by applying it on your hands and then wiping it on your face.

The Beauty of Natural Sunscreens

Many people choose natural sunscreens primarily because they don’t contain harmful chemicals. This is certainly a key benefit, but it’s certainly not the only one. Natural sunscreens, at varying levels depending on the specific ingredients, have been proven to reduce the harmful effects of sun damage. In many cases their natural ingredients are helpful in preserving skin and can even help skin look younger. They can even help fight against various skin conditions.

A few of the many benefits of natural sunscreens:

  • While chemical sunscreens tend to absorb the sun’s rays and then neutralize them once in the skin, natural sunscreens use the beneficial minerals titanium and zinc, both of which act as barriers and block UV rays.
  • There are fewer allergenic ingredients in natural sunscreen, decreasing the chance of irritation and breakouts. Skin irritation in chemical sunscreens is not uncommon.
  • Natural sunscreens do not require the same frequent re-application that chemical sunscreens do. Natural sunscreens sit on top of the skin as a layer rather than being absorbed into the skin and becoming dormant.
  • Natural sunscreens soothe and nourish skin while protecting it. Chemical sunscreens can clog the skin’s pores.

Tips for General Sun Protection

1. Higher SPF is not that much better. There’s a false sense of security using SPF levels between 50 and 100. Studies show that sunscreen with SPF 15 can block about 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks about 97%, and SPF 50 blocks 98%. After that, SPF protection more or less plateaus, with SPF 100 blocking about 99.1% of UVB rays. The problem is that it’s easy to think that extremely high SPF values equate to longer and significantly better protection, so consumers may reapply less often or apply less of it.

2. SPF isn’t the full story. SPF protection only applies to UVB rays.

3. Eyewear matters. Wear full-coverage sunglasses that block UV rays and that cover the entire eye area.

4. Choose fabrics carefully. All types of apparel specifically designed to provide UV protection are available. But if don’t yet have these in your wardrobe, keep in mind that the more tightly-woven a piece of clothing, the more UV protection it provides. Lighter colors tend to reflect more light than dark colors and dry clothing offers more protection than wet clothing.

5. Hats are great! They provide great extra coverage and are a terrific way to supplement your protection. Use hats with a tightly-woven fabric whenever possible, and if wearing ball caps, make sure the ears get covered with sunscreen.

6. Avoid peak exposure times. Yes, you’ve heard this many times. The UV intensity is greatest between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., so it’s ideal to avoid prolonged time in the sun during that time of day. But if you are out during those hours, be especially cognizant of your sunscreen and other protection.

7. Shake the bottle. If you haven’t used your sunscreen for a while, shake it well to mix ingredients that may have separated. Once it has hit the 2-year mark, replace it.

8. Don’t judge by how sunny it is. You need protection on a grey or cloudy day just as you need it in the sun. UV rays filter through clouds, at times with more intensity than they might when the sun is out, so take the same precautions as any other day.

9. Broad-Spectrum. When purchasing sunscreen, only buy broad-spectrum protection.

10. Think shot glass. If you’ll be in direct sunlight, apply sunscreen generously – in an amount roughly equivalent to a shot glass.

Plan Ahead, Then Enjoy!

There are so many sunscreen products from which to choose, and it can get tiring trying to select the safest and most effective product. And no one product is for everyone. But if you want to avoid potentially harmful chemicals that absorb into the skin, opt for one of many all-natural sunscreen products based on the factors that fit your needs. Add other protection including tight-knit fabrics, a hat, well-fitted sunglasses that cover your entire eye area from the sun, then reapply your sunscreen every couple of hours. Knowing you’re well-protected against the sun’s harmful effects while avoiding the worries associated with chemical sunscreens gives you a peace of mind that can be focused on enjoying your day. So have fun…safely!

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