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3 factors to consider in chemical sunscreen ingredients

3 factors to consider in chemical sunscreen ingredients

Our number one goal when shopping for a sunscreen is the same – to protect our skin and our children’s skin from the sun’s harmful rays.  Exposure to UV rays is the main factor that causes skin cells to become cancer cells, so a good sunscreen is a-must for everyone who spends time outdoors in the summer. Both chemical (aka synthetic and conventional) and mineral (aka physical) sunscreens protect from the sun’s harmful rays, but did you know that chemical sunscreen ingredients are harmful because they’re unstable when exposed to sunlight, mess with our hormones and offer no other benefit to our skin? As you’re smearing sunscreen onto your kid’s skin this summer, here are some factors to consider beyond SPF rating about your chemical sunscreen ingredients.

1. Toxic SPF ingredients

There are about 30 active chemical sunscreen ingredients. Some of the most common include Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, and Homosalate.  These sunscreen ingredients rate at 8, 6 and 4 out of 10 for various toxicities on the Environmental Working Group’s ingredient database Skin DeepOxybenzone, for example, is linked to skin allergies which are triggered by sun exposure because this ingredient is phototoxic.  Sunlight also causes oxybenzone to form free radicals that maybe linked to cell damage and premature aging.  Oxybenzone absorbs through the skin in significant amounts according to the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) and it’s been found to be persistent in the body and 97% of Americans.  It’s a hormone disruptor that has also been found in breast milk, urine and blood.

Similarly, Octinoxate and Homosalate show evidence of hormone disruption and being unstable when exposed to sunlight.  This phototoxicity compromises their effectiveness increasing UV damage to the skin. Many of these ingredients are also penetration enhancers and have been shown to increase our skin’s absorbency of other toxic ingredients such as DEET and pesticides.

Sunscreen ingredients, such as Avobenzone, are safer options (Avobenzone rates at a 2 on Skin Deep), but make sure they’re not combined with one of the other more toxic sunscreen ingredients.  This often happens with Avobenzone because it lacks stability and other sunscreen ingredients help with that.  Although research on synthetic ingredients is still rolling in, it’s wise to be cautious and choose safer sunscreen alternatives such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. You’ll find a link to my curated sunscreen page at the end of the blog.

2. Hormone-disrupting ingredients

What do most shampoos, body soaps and sunscreen lotions have in common? They contain synthetic parfum or fragrance, an umbrella term for over 3000 ingredients.  Phthalates fragrance ingredients and plasticizers with hormone-disrupting properties.  In products, they act as preservatives but also make scent linger.

Phthalates can interfere with endocrine (hormone) systems at certain doses and derail hormone functions.  Fragrance is found in most personal care products (including sunscreen lotions), so a little bit from each product can really add up.  No matter how small the dosage in a product, these ingredients are persistent in our bodies and contribute to our overall toxic burden. We don’t know how much fragrance is in a product, but you can look to see how high up the word “parfum” or “fragrance” is on your product’s ingredient list.  This is usually a good indication of how scented the product is.

Pthalates in a product can be hidden under the umbrella terms “parfum” or “fragrance”, but they can also be listed individually in the ingredient list.  Avoid ingredients in your sunscreen ending in the word phthalate (for example, DBP – dibutyl phthalate) and products that are scented.  If you’re at the beach and someone is spraying their Coppertone sunscreen all over the place, cover your mouth and eyes and make sure you’re not downwind from the spray.

3. Empty non-active ingredients

Is it enough for a sunscreen to only prevent sunburn? You might be thinking, “What else is it supposed to do?” Our skin needs to be adequately moisturized, nourished and protected from the sun rays and chemical SPF ingredients are not factors in this protection. Although conventional sunscreens contain active ingredients that will prevent sunburn, they offer very little in terms of skin benefits.  If your skin doesn’t do well in summer temperatures, have a look at my advice on skin care products your skin really needs to thrive.

Most sunscreen products are full of fillers like silicones that create a film-like barrier on our skin and dry it out over time. Silicones are used by skin care companies because they’re cheap and help products spread easily on the skin.  Companies that use them in sunscreen can claim “sweat-proof” or “water-proof” benefits for their products, but you might as well be wrapping your skin in plastic wrap! What makes the product “water-proof” is actually suffocating your skin! Silicones can be easily spotted in products by the ending -siloxane or -methicone on an ingredient.  Silicones are persistent on our bodies and in our environment.  Please, consider this before jumping in our lakes this summer!

Non-active (non spf)  ingredients make up 50 – 70% of a sunscreen – a good reason to pay attention and know what they are.  Ensure that your sunscreen contains a botanical blend that offers your skin soothing and moisturizing properties.  Shea butter, calendula, aloe vera extract or red raspberry seed oil are beneficial ingredients that will protect, soothe and nourish your skin from the sun’s drying rays.  These ingredients should appear somewhere on the top of your product’s ingredient list because this is what makes up 80% of the product.

SPF 15 Sunscreen graph by Dr. Denis Dudley

My advice + final thoughts

There is no doubt that we have to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful rays.  Seeking shade, wearing sunglasses, a hat and long protective clothing should be at the top of our sun protection plan.  Additionally, a good sunscreen is a-must from spring to fall when we spend more time outdoors.  A good sunscreen should protect from the sun without causing other forms of damage to our skin and overall health.

Mineral (physical) sunblocks are wonderful alternatives and they’ve come a long way since the days of Baywatch, when they were sported only by lifeguards.  I’d encourage you to go this route and ensure that your mineral sunblock contains a high zinc oxide (over 15%) content for broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection.  If the zinc oxide content is lower than 15%, another active ingredient such as titanium dioxide or encapsulated octinoxate of at least 7.5% would be needed to provide broad spectrum protection of SPF 30.  On my children, I’ve been using Matter Company’s Substance Unscented Natural Sun Care cream for the past two years because of its high zinc oxide content and rich ingredients that nourish the skin.  For my face, I love Helena Lane’s Sun Cream because it melts into the skin without leaving a white film.

We have more options today than ever before, so find a mineral sunscreen that you like and use it religiously.

Check out my curated choices for mineral facial sunscreen and take 10% off with code mineralsunscreen10 in my shop.


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  1. Pingback: How many skin care products do you really need? - Green Beauty Expert

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