Overall, there are two basic types of sunscreens; Ones which absorb and deflect (or reflect) the sun’s rays via a chemical reaction, and lotions that block harmful sun rays—zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—which create a physical barrier against rays.
Most commercial products offer a combination of the two. When possible, avoid the following ingredients:
- PABA: Though rarely used now in sunscreens, beware of products that contain the ingredient. Forty percent of the population is sensitive to it, experiencing red, itchy skin.
- Benzophenone (benzophenone-3), homosalate, and octy-methoxycinnamate (octinoxate): These chemicals are of more concern because they have shown estrogenic activity in lab tests. Dr. Margret Schlumpf of the University of Zurich’s Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology says they have been shown to disrupt hormones, affecting the development of the brain (particularly the hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal system) and reproductive organs in laboratory rats. Because people are exposed simply by eating fish (where benzophenone accumulates in the fat), using sunscreen containing these chemicals unduly increases the exposure. Based on her studies, Dr. Schlumpf advises people avoid products containing benzophenone and the related chemicals above.
- Parabens (butyl-, ethyl-, methyl-, and propyl-): Parabens may also mimic estrogen, but because they are common in sunscreens, avoiding them may prove difficult.
- Padimate-O and Parsol 1789 (2-ethylhexyl-4-dimethylaminobenzoic acid and avobenzone): These two chemicals have the potential to damage DNA when illuminated with sunlight. On the skin’s surface, these chemicals do protect from UV damage; however, once absorbed into the skin, these same chemicals can prove destructive. Dr. Knowland’s research indicates that Padimate-O and Parsol 1789 “are excited by the UV energy which they absorb and become reactive, acquiring the potential to attack cellular components, including DNA.” Knowland cautions that “DNA damage inflicted by an excited sunscreen is much less capable of being repaired by naturally occurring repair mechanisms than the DNA damage inflicted by UV alone.”
Which Sunscreens are Safest?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released the first-ever, in-depth analysis of the safety and effectiveness of more than 700 name-brand sunscreens. The new database lists products that offer the best combination of safety and effectiveness: they are formulated with the safest chemicals, are most effective at protecting against sunburn, and help prevent long-term damage caused by the sun’s UVA rays, which are linked to skin aging, wrinkling and, potentially, cancer.
The analysis found that 84 percent of 785 sunscreen products with an SPF rating of 15 or higher offer inadequate protection from the sun’s harmful rays, or contain ingredients with safety concerns. Ironically, some popular sunscreen chemicals break down when exposed to sunlight and must be formulated with stabilizing chemicals. Others penetrate the skin and present significant health concerns. This ground-breaking research is based on nearly 400 peer-reviewed studies of the 17 sunscreen chemicals approved for use in the U.S., an analysis of sunscreen ingredient toxicity linked to 60 industry and government databases on chemical hazards, coupled with customized, product-by-product assessments of protection from both UVA and UVB radiation.
Even though studies on the potential toxicity of sunscreens may not be definitive, if you’re going to use a sunscreen then why not look for a natural alternative to commercial sunscreens that contain no petrochemicals. Also, aloe vera gel on your skin works as a natural sunscreen, and helps heal a sunburn.