From the dawn of commercials and the pharmaceutical industry, we've been bombarded with images of people applying sunscreen religiously no matter the amount of time out in the sun, smearing and spraying onto adults, children, and even dogs. Sunscreen use has increased significantly since its creation, and so has UV-induced illnesses. With chemical use, there is chemical waste, and as for sunscreen there are only three places it can travel: into the bloodstream, onto the sand, or into the ocean. Aside from the claims of UV protection, what are the implications of the active and inactive ingredient lists on sunscreen bottles?
How Sunscreen Targets UV Rays
The sun that shines down almost effortless daily emits a variety of cosmic and light rays. Among those, there are three main components of ultraviolet rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. Ranging between 200-290nm, ultraviolet C has the highest energy emitted of the three; however, the ozone layer filters it out, thus lessening its biological damage. The main difference between UVA and UVB is the wavelength. Since UVA is longer, it surpasses certain factors that limit UVB thus making it more potent for biological damage. On the bright side, UVA provides us with vitamin D and a glowing tan .
For the longest time, chemical sunscreens were the only option for sun protection (unless you went old school like the ancients and applied oils and clays). Modern day science now gives us two options, to include mineral sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens go through a reaction once applied to the skin by absorbing UV rays and dispensing it as heat, whereas mineral sunscreens block the UV rays from penetrating the skin and reflect them outward. Generally, sunscreens will contain two to six chemical filters: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. At the beginning of this year, the FDA has issued a thorough screening process of sunscreen filters to test the efficacy and safety. However, the effects of these sunscreen filters have been experienced within the human body and the ocean life for decades.
Biological and Ecological Effects of Sunscreen
So far, the FDA and CDC have concluded that the risks of these sunscreen filters outweigh the benefits. Studies have shown that the sunscreen filters cause allergic reactions on the skin such as rashes and eczema and disrupt hormone function ranging from the fetus to an adult. The sunscreen filters negatively impact birth weight and pregnancy term length. In 2016, the CDC evaluated oxybenzone exposure in adolescent boys and found that higher concentrations of the chemical reduced testosterone levels. There is even discussion of possible neurotoxicity since most UV filters pass the blood-brain barrier. In aquatic life, researchers have found that sunscreen filters are infiltrating the waters, negatively influencing the life of phytoplankton and poisoning sea life such as fish and the coral reefs. The bio-accumulation of these chemicals pollute the environment, and through the cycle of life there is potentiality of the chemicals reaching human consumption [2,3].
As a consumer with this knowledge, you can now make an educated decision about what sunscreen is best for yourself and others. Mineral sunscreens offer a low-risk protection against the sun's rays for the human body and the ecosystem. To boost the blocking ability of mineral sunscreens, they may be mixed with certain oils, extracts, and clays to further protect the skin. A few years ago, coconut oil circled around as an alternative for sunblock; however studies have showed it's only 20% effective. So what alternatives are there?
A common inactive ingredients in mineral sunscreens is aloe vera, shea butter, and soothing calendula.
Green/Black Tea - a common remedy for sunburns, green and black tea is rich in catechins, tannins, and theobromine. The same antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties reaped internally apply topically on the skin. In addition to its soothing effect via extracting heat, these teas also protect skin cells and DNA from further cellular damage, which in turn give it an anti-aging effect.
Aloe Vera - stimulates collagen production and improves the structure of the cell. The only caveat: the entire plant must be utilized to experience the soothing properties of aloe vera.
Walnut Extract - when applied to the skin, the green shells of Juglans regia react with keratin to produce UV protection
Rhatany Root Extract - studies have proven that Krameria triandra standardized to 15% neolignans are as effective, if not more, than green and black tea. It maintains the integrity of the cell and protect against skin photo-damage.
Borage Oil - rich in GLA, Borago officinalis encourages skin regeneration. This fatty acid component, also prevalent in evening primrose oil, is ideal for all skin types and alleviates a variety of skin disorders including dermatitis and allergies.
Avocado Oil - provides a coveted bronzed babe look and is rich in vitamin E, fatty acids, and vitamin D; thus protecting the skin. Sesame oil is considerably effective as well, as it blocks up to 30% of UVB rays. When combined with healing herbs such as comfrey and calendula, this creates a healing and soothing solution with these oils.
Tea Tree Oil - Melaleuca alternifolia increases blood flow, carries nutrients to damaged cells, and soothes sunburns as its an antiseptic, fungicide, and germicide.
Enjoying the sun, swimming freely, and spending precious time with family and friends is completely feasible with mineral and herbal sunscreens. Knowledge is power, so you may consciously buy products that will benefit you and the environment around you with little to no harm (in this case, none!).
Which of these natural solutions have you tried or planning on trying? Share in the comments below!
1. Korać, R. R., & Khambholja, K. M. (2011). Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation. Pharmacognosy reviews, 5(10), 164–173. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.91114
2. M. Krause, A. Klit, M. Blomberg Jensen, T. Søeborg, H. Frederiksen, M. Schlumpf, W.Lichtensteiger, N.E. Skakkebaek, K.T. Drzewiecki. Sunscreens: are they beneficial for health? An overview of endocrine disrupting properties of UV-filters. Int. J. Androl., 35 (2012), pp. 424-436
3. Ewg. (n.d.). EWG's 2019 Guide to Safer Sunscreens. Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/