There’s a lot of fear surrounding the use of sunscreens in the natural-minded community, and for good reason. Many of us have heard that sunscreens contain toxic chemicals and cancer-causing ingredients, so we opt not to use these potentially hazardous ingredients on our skin. While it’s true that some sunscreens contain chemicals that have been linked to certain types of cancers, it’s important to remember that not wearing sunscreen is almost absolutely linked to a certain type of cancer: melanoma.
So, what’s an ingredient-conscious person to do? Thankfully, there are some very effective sunscreens out there that pose an extremely low risk to health and aren’t known to be toxic.
Chemicals and endocrine disruption
Before we get into the two different kinds of sun protection from which you can choose, let’s talk about why we need to have this conversation in the first place. The reason you may have heard that sunscreens are “toxic” or “cancer-causing” is because the ingredients in some products are known to be hormone disruptors.
Hormone, or endocrine, disruptors are ingredients that are very similar to our natural hormones, and thus can interfere with our natural biology when they are absorbed into our system. This is a pretty big problem. Phytoestrogens are an example of a class of endocrine disruptors that mimic estrogen in our bodies. These synthetic estrogens are suspected to be linked to breast cancer, which makes them a major concern. Hormone disruptors are scattered throughout our environment these days, so most of us want to try to limit our exposure to these ingredients as much as possible.
Unfortunately, many of the chemicals found in sunscreens are known endocrine disruptors. Specifically, the chemicals oxybenzone, octinoxate and homosalate are the most highly suspected to cause endocrine disruption.
Chemical vs. physical sunscreens
This brings us to the two classifications of sunscreens on the market: chemical and physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin. They work by reacting with the molecules in sunlight, changing UVA and UVB rays into other types of molecules so they can’t burn the skin. Many chemical sunscreens contain the aforementioned endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Physical sunscreens (sometimes referred to as mineral sunscreens), on the other hand, sit atop the skin. They reflect UVA and UVB rays away from the skin rather than absorbing it and forming a chemical reaction with it. Neither the sun’s rays nor the ingredients in the sunscreen penetrate the skin. These sunscreens tend to contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which are known to be quite safe. However, it’s still important to read labels: Even some physical sunscreens sometimes have added fillers that may be endocrine disrupting.
Sun protection tips
When it comes down to it, it really pays off to do your research on sun protection. The Environmental Working Group reminds us that there are a lot of problems with modern sunscreens. First, many of them contain toxic ingredients, and second, they aren’t often labelled properly, leading to incorrect usage. Here are some important tips to remember when shopping for and applying sun protection:
- Make sure you select a sunscreen that is labelled “broad spectrum,” meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Reapply your sunscreen frequently. This is one of the EWG’s biggest sticking points. If you don’t reapply sunscreen regularly (which many people are tempted to do when they buy a product with a high SPF), you won’t be protecting against skin cancer.
- If you’re concerned about toxicity, look for physical sunscreens. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are low-risk, perfectly effective ingredients.
- Be sure to read ingredient labels to check for toxic inactive ingredients. After all, the sun-protecting agents aren’t the only ingredients in your product. Even a mineral sunscreen could still contain synthetic fragrances, parabens or other harmful additives.
- Cover up. Really, nothing beats a good hat, a pair of shades and a flowy outfit. These things will keep you safe from the sun whether you choose to wear sunscreen or not, and they can be your backup in case it’s been too long since you’ve reapplied.