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Is Your Sunscreen “Safe”?

As humans, we need sunlight. About 20 minutes of unprotected sun exposure each day helps us maintain an adequate amount of vitamin D and boosts our mood. However, prolonged sun exposure can adversely affect our immune system, cause premature aging of our skin as well as skin cancer. Thankfully, roughly 100 years ago, sunscreens were developed to protect us from the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light so we could enjoy more time in the sun without the accompanying risks.

Today, roughly one billion dollars of sunscreen is sold annually. Frustratingly, however, many sunscreens contain toxic chemicals that put our health at risk as well as pollute our environment.

As we approach summer, here’s what you should know to make smarter, safer sunscreen selections:

Chemical Versus Mineral Sunscreens

Sunscreens available on the market fall into one of two categories: mineral and chemical.

Mineral–or physical–sunscreens are composed of minerals that sit on the surface of the skin and physically block sunlight. The active ingredients found in mineral sunscreens come from two naturally occurring minerals: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide begin as rocks before being ground into an ultra-fine consistency and block both UVA and UVB light. What’s more, they’re the only two active sunscreen ingredients (out of a total of 17) the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified as “safe” and “effective.”

On the contrary, chemical sunscreens, when applied to the skin, absorb UV light. But these chemicals don’t just sit on your skin–they’re systemically absorbed by the body and wind up in the bloodstream (even after just one use!). If this doesn’t sound “safe,” it’s because it’s not.

Once absorbed, chemical sunscreens spread throughout the body–bypassing detoxification by the liver. Alarmingly, they can be detected on the skin and in the blood, urine, and breastmilk days to weeks after use. They can also generate free radicals that can potentially lead to cancer. Yikes!

It’s most imperative to note, however, that nine of the 15 chemical sunscreen ingredients are considered endocrine disruptors. Essentially, these chemicals can:

  • Interfere with the function of hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and thyroid function;

  • Cause infertility and low sperm count;

  • Cause abnormal development of fetuses;

  • Cause early puberty; and

  • Can potentially contribute to the development of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer.

If your current sunscreen of choice contains any of the following ingredients, it’s likely posing a risk to you and your family’s health: oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone. A total of 11 chemical sunscreen ingredients are currently being investigated by the FDA for safety–meaning they have not yet been deemed “safe.”

Making Smarter Sunscreen Choices

By now, it’s obvious mineral sunscreens provide a safer alternative to chemical sunscreens and their toxic ingredients. But as we approach sunny, summer weather, here are some additional key points to remember when it comes to sun safety:

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of 30 SPF (or higher) to provide protection against both UVA and UVB rays;

  • If you’ll be sweating or swimming, be sure to choose a water-resistant option;

  • Read sunscreen labels to ensure they do not contain the toxic chemicals listed above;

  • Choose organic options (if possible);

  • Limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest; and

  • Apply sunscreen 30 minutes prior to sun exposure and reapply after two hours.

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