Chances are, you are a diligent food label reader like us. What are the ingredients? Is it organic? Where is it sourced?
But when was the last time you checked your sunscreen label? And did you know that some standard sun protection chemicals can last for weeks in your bloodstream?
Different types of sunblocks and how they work
There are a lot of different terms when it comes to sunblock. Broad-spectrum. Fragrance-free, paraben-free. Noncomedogenic. But how each product provides protection generally can be divided into two types: physical barrier and chemical barrier. You’ve probably used both types—ones that provide physical barriers often use the term “mineral sunscreen” while the chemical barrier types are usually found in spray sunscreens.
Active Ingredients: Titanium dioxide and Zinc oxide
Physical barrier sunscreens work the same way clothes do. They sit atop your skin and actually block the UV rays shining down.
Physical barrier sunscreens usually rely on one or two primary mineral ingredients: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These were the original types of sun block—the kind that conjure the image of the thick, goopy swath of white striping down an 80’s lifeguard’s nose.
But zinc sunscreens have come a long way since then.
Many brands have developed lightweight zinc oxide sunscreens that rub on smoothly, sans haze. And some even come with tinting so that it blends even better with your skin. You’ll especially see zinc oxide as the primary ingredient in kid’s and “sensitive skin” sunblocks.
Active Ingredients:Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate, Octinoxate, Cinoxate, Dioxybenzone, Ensulizole, Meradimate, Padimate O, and Sulisobenzone,
Chemical sunscreens on the other hand, don’t actually “block” UV rays. Instead, they absorb the UV radiation and chemically convert the rays into heat, which is then released by the body.
Chemical sunscreens generally dominate the grocery shelves, with a wide array of active ingredients, with the top ones being avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone.
~Get technical~ A popular trend in sunscreens is to offer a combo with both physical blockers and chemical ingredients. These sometimes will include “nano-Zinc oxide” and “nano-Titanium dioxide,” but these “nano” versions of the minerals are on NOAA’s list of chemicals that harm marine life.
So what’s the problem with chemical sunscreen?
They aren’t exactly “skin safe”
Even though some of the chemicals have been added to cosmetics since the 60’s, they haven’t really been studied that much by the FDA and were just grandfathered in, despite the lack of safety testing.
But in 2019 only 2 out of the 16 active sunscreen ingredients met the GRASE standard (“Generally Recognized As Safe and Effective”). The only two? Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Two did not meet the criteria (PABA and trolamine salicylate) and the other 12 were on the list for requiring further data.
Although current data is inconclusive, from preliminary studies, these sunscreen chemicals could impact endocrine levels and alter hormone balance—a particular worry for developing teens. In addition, many were more likely to cause an allergic reaction as opposed to the physical sunblock. But what’s also troubling is that these chemicals can stay in your body for weeks after just a single use. Researchers actually detected sunscreen chemicals in study participant’s urine, in blood levels weeks after last application, and even in breast milk.
The majority definitely aren’t “ocean safe”
Maybe you’ve heard about coral reef bleaching. Or perhaps even “reef safe” sunscreens, but aren’t sure what that means.
Reefs are vital to many coasts—not only as vibrant ecosystems, but as deterrents for flooding, erosion, and ocean health.
So what do these chemical sunscreens do?
What happens is that the very chemicals that work to convert the UV rays in your skin end up getting absorbed by ocean and marine life for detrimental effects. For reefs, the chemicals (especially oxybenzone and the additive BP-2) accumulate in tissues and eventually cause DNA damage and death. For algae, it coats them and prevents them from absorbing UV which they need for photosynthesis. For fish and mollusks, it can impact fertility and cause birth defects. These chemicals can even impact the reproductive cycles of dolphins.
Scientists have estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in coral reefs every year, and it falls down as micro-particles that wash off from nearby swimmers.
But the effects aren’t just limited to those tropical vacationers. Any time we use these chemicals and they are then washed off down our shower drain, they end up in our water streams—particularly because water treatment facilities aren’t equipped to filter for them. Not only do these chemicals eventually make their way to the sea from runoff, but the chemicals can then impact the algae and freshwater fish in our land-surrounded waterways.
Lastly, here are some additional ingredients that are not coral reef safe: Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, Nano-Titanium dioxide, and Nano-Zinc oxide.
Final recommendations for sunscreen
So which types and brands do we recommend?
To be absolutely safe, use physical barrier sunblock. They are friendly to sensitive skin, aren’t absorbed into the skin and pose no threat to the reefs. Look for brands that are broad-spectrum, paraben-free and PABA-free. Fragrance-free, oil-free, and noncomedogenic are best for sensitive skin. And for the most thorough protection, most researchers recommend an SPF of 30 and no higher than 50.
Protecting your skin from overexposure to UV radiation is one of the most important steps to preventing skin cancer, but with so many options and conscientious brand out there, you don’t have to expose your body, your loved one’s bodies, or the environment to harmful chemicals along the way.
Here are brands that we recommend:
- All Good Sport Sunscreen
- Stream2Sea (This brand was actually founded by a diver and is the “only mineral based sunscreen on the planet that’s been tested and proven safe for freshwater fish”)
- All Terrain AquaSport
- Mad Hippie
And don’t forget your lips!
For lips, we recommend and carry:
- All Good
- Lip Trip
- Lip Rescue