Everyone loves summer.
Think about it for a minute; the long, warm daylight hours, holidays, good times with good friends and family and everything else that comes along with it. Of course, this is the rose tinted memory we all hold, but we also know that there is one thing that can ruin and summers day very easily.
Yes, mosquitos. But also sunburn.
Not only is sunburn painfully sore and one of the key skin cancer risk factors - the Skin Cancer society says that the risk of melanoma doubles if you have had more than five sunburns - it is easily prevented too. Let it be clear that when it comes to sunburn, prevention is key and there is no substitute for staying out of the sun and in the shade, or wearing suitable clothing and a hat, particularly when the sun is at its strongest.
Unfortunately that isn’t always practical, and surfing is a great example of when these prevention methods wont always work as desired and a high quality sunscreen should be used. But you should know that not all sunscreens are created equal, so this guide is here to help you.
So what is the problem, exactly?
73% of sunscreens do not work, or contain ingredients that can damage our bodies.
The 2017 Environmental Working Group (EWG) sunscreen guide (which tested over 1500 products which are marketed to protect against the sun) found a whopping 73% of them to either not work at all, or contain ingredients that can cause damage to the skin and adversely affect hormones.
Whoa. That is one serious drop mic moment. And to be fair, it isnt exactly easy to know what to look for as there is also a lot of information out there. Luckily for you this guide is designed to distill down into some key themes and back it up with a checklist to help you put it action into next time you're in the sun.
So, this guide will cover three key things:
- What a good sunscreen does, including how you can read and understand the label
- The difference between natural and chemical sunscreens
- A six point checklist to help you find the best sunscreen for you & your loved ones
In addition there is links at the end to a range of external sources which you can also check out if you're after some more information, and want to make up your own mind.
1. What a good sunscreen does, including how to read and understand the label
Much of what you will see below may appear familiar to you as you have likely seen it on sunscreens you have purchased before, but for example, do you really know what SPF is best? Did you just say the highest SPF is best?…Well, the data suggests perhaps not.
To understand how to protect yourself from sunburn, it helps to know what sunburn is. Sunburn is damage to your skin caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. UV rays are not visible to the human eye and are still present in varying degrees on cloudy days which makes sun protection that much trickier, especially when you can get sunburnt when it isn't particularly sunny. Often sunburn appears as a sensitive reddening of the skin, as well as causing premature ageing (think of wrinkles or sun spots).
What does SPF mean?
SPF stands for ‘Sun Protection Factor’ and measures the percentage of UVB rays that are stopped before they can damage the skin. UVB rays cause the reddening and pain associated with sunburn. The higher the SPF rating, the more protection it offers but beware that the ratings aren’t linear, despite what many people believe. For instance, an SPF 50 rating means 98% of rays are stopped from reaching the skin, while SPF 30 means 97% of rays are stopped. The difference is no-where near twice as much, like common sense may lead you to think.
You may even remember seeing SPF levels of 60, or 80, or more but these were recently banned in many markets because they gave consumers a false sense of security. There was evidence that users would often not apply enough or re-apply frequently in order to achieve the full protection advertised, which in a cruel twist would lead to more sunburn.
Always remember that no product can ever provide 100% protection (and dont believe anyone who claims otherwise). The only way to get total protection is to stay out of the sun completely and remain in the shade.
What about ‘Broad Spectrum’?
SPF starts to feel a little bit of basic measure when you realise it doesn’t measure UVA rays, which scientists now understand can also cause cancer. This is where broad spectrum helps out as it measures protection from UVA rays as well as UVB - quite literally, there is protection provided across the broad spectrum of UVB and UVA rays.
A Broad Spectrum sunscreen can be achieved by having different chemical ingredients that target UVA and UVB rays (sometimes to varying levels of efficacy) or by using a mineral sunscreen which blocks both - we will come back and talk about them some more later on.
What about water resistance?
Sunscreens have to undergo extra testing to prove they still provide protection after exposure to water. Different markets have different methodologies for measuring this but it usually involves applying the sunscreen to a test patch, with an untreated patch next to it and then having the tester submerged in water for a given period of time. Following this, the standard SPF test is conducted to ensure the required SPF is achieved after exposure to water.
Regardless of water resistance claims, most regulators and skin cancer societies agree that sunscreen should be reapplied frequently (at least every two hours), and liberally whenever you have been in the water, sweating or towelling off.
Note that no sunscreen can be marketed as ‘Water Proof’ as all sunscreens will lose their efficacy over time when exposed to water.
Regulation of sunscreen efficacy, claims, and general ingredients
The sunscreen industry is generally very highly regulated and for good reason - sunscreen was invented to prevent skin cancer. So who decides right from wrong, says whether or not the sunscreen you massage into your skin is what it says it is, and is going to help you?
Different countries will have varying rules and regulations for sunscreens. A key difference is that some countries categorises sunscreen as pharmaceuticals with strict monitoring and testing requirements before they can be sold to consumers that have been proven in scientific testing with statistically significant results. In contrast, other countries categorise sunscreen as a cosmetic which results in relatively loose regulation and monitoring, and claims.
When it comes to SPF products, Australia is known to have the strictest testing and standards which is most likely because Australia also has the unglamorous title of some of the world’s highest skin cancer rates. Products that are able to be sold here and called a sunscreen, with SPF ratings, have passed strict tests for performance and sun protection.
Regarding other ingredients (emulsifiers, preservatives etc) as a general rule, countries usually follow either the European Commission’s (EC) approach or the United States’ FDA with regards to what ingredients are considered safe for use in skincare. The European Union is understood to be stricter and will ban a lot of ingredients if there is concern about potential harm to humans, when compared to the FDA. This may explain in part why some products available in the USA are not available in the EC.
The EC even has a database where you can search for products and ingredients to ensure they have submitted the appropriate documentation to be allowed to sell to consumers, with data going back to 1976.
Nano particles are a bit of a grey area at the moment, but the underlying concerns are two fold. The first is concerns with aerosols whereby nanoparticles that are inhaled can cause lung damage (so stay clear of aerosols, or at the very least, be very careful to ensure that particles are never inhaled). The second is that nano-particles are so minute that they are able to enter the human body easier than larger particles when applied to the skin like in a sunscreen lotion, however these tests have had mixed results. There isn’t any evidence suggesting nanoparticles boost sunscreen efficacy, over non-nano.
The key benefit with nano-particles is aesthetic; the finer each particle is, the less the visible the mineral blocker will be. In other words, nanoparticles help the sunscreen blend in with your natural skin tone.
What are active ingredients?
Active ingredients are what is actually protecting you and combatting the harmful UV rays. The remaining ingredients, are there to ensure the product is able to be used in the desired manner; think of things like emulsifiers to hold the formula together, preservatives to give it a shelf life and not deteriorate, and fragrances or other additives to enhance the appearance and superficial experience of using the product (i.e. everything other than sun protection). Some fragrances that make sunscreen smell nice have also raised some concerns over the way they react with UVA and UVB rays, so be careful.
2. The difference between natural and chemical sunscreens
Generally speaking, sunscreen active ingredients fall into one of two categories:
- Chemical sunscreens which sit in the upper layers of your skin and target specific rays (e.g. UVB only) and breakdown these rays as they enter into your body
- Natural sunscreens are generally minerals like Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide which sit on top of your skin, and reflect the harmful rays away from your body
Here is a bit more information to help you understand the two types.
Chemical blockers are found in the majority of sunscreens available today. This is mostly because they’re cheap to produce and are relatively effective at blocking UV rays. But only recently have scientists begun to understand the damage that chemical sunscreens cause to humans and the environment.
A chemical sunscreen will reside within the upper layers of your skin, and will breakdown the UVB rays as they enter into your body. This brings the benefit of the sunscreen being invisible to the naked eye, but be mindful of the ingredients as some people believe that once the chemicals get into your skin it is easier to enter your bloodstream.
Damage to human health
In recent years there has been increasing evidence that chemical sunscreen ingredients are toxic to humans. Two of the most common concerns are hormone disruption and skin allergies. For example Oxybenzone, which is possibly the most common active ingredient in sunscreen, is now known for concerns focussed on hormone disruption, particularly decreases in testosterone in men, as well as skin allergies. Oxybenzone (the chemical everyone loves to hate) has also been found in breast milk suggesting that not only is it sinking into the bloodstream, but it is also being passed on to infants. Bizzarely, another chemical sunscreen Avobenzone is unstable in sunshine before it is mixed with stabilisers; go figure.
To add to that, recent research has revealed that chemical blockers aren’t as effective at preventing skin cancer as was initially thought. As frequent news articles show, customer complaints about the poor effectiveness of sunscreen keep popping up. This may be partly a reflection of the effectiveness of different chemicals at combatting specific UV rays, although application frequency, quantity, and applying 20 minutes before sun exposure, may also be factors.
It’s not difficult to imagine that we will one day look back in shock that we used to coat our bodies with these chemicals; thinking that it was protecting us when it was actually doing damage. It wouldn’t be the first time of course, considering that doctors used to prescribe cigarettes as a treatment for numerous ailments.
No doubt science will progress, and as we learn more, the methods to protect ourselves will change, so staying on top of the latest developments will always be vital.
Interaction and irritation with your skin - sensitive skin? This is for you
Protection from the sun aside, chemical sunscreens contain allergens that have been proven to cause skin irritation particularly for people with conditions like psoriasis, eczema, or generally sensitive skin. Avobenzone, Octocrylene, Octinoxate, and Oxybenzone are chemical sunscreens that all have moderate to high rates of skin allergy. Additionally, the allergens that you find in skincare usually consist of fragrances or preservatives.
Any products should have known allergens clearly and separately listed, especially if they are sold in the EU.
Negative environmental impacts
When you spend time in the water, sunscreen will lose its effectiveness. This generally means that the sunscreen is coming off of (out out of your body in the case of chemical sunscreen) and into the water you are in.
Worryingly, a number of chemical sunscreens, have been proven to have damaging impacts on the environment, specifically bleaching of coral reefs. In fact, two of the most commonly used chemical blockers — Oxybenzone and Octinoxate — have recently been banned by the state of Hawaii due to the negative effects that they have on coral reefs. The small Republic of Palau has gone a step further in banning a total of 10 chemical sunscreen ingredients due to their toxicity to marine life and impact on bleaching coral reefs.
But, don't get too caught up in the hype around this. While there is some research in the lab showing sunscreen chemicals can bleach coral, in most instances in the environment the doses are far lower than lab tests, and the only damage seen is anecdotal; For example, a scientist saw coral bleaching where there were tourists, but it may have been caused by tourists accidentally walking on the coral, and not their sunscreen.
In any case, the damage sunscreen causes to coral reefs will pale in comparison to damage cause by global warming through warming sea temperatures, ocean acidification and so on. So if you are going to change one thing to help coral reefs, consider something that helps global warming before you change sunscreen.
So what about mineral sunscreens then?
Mineral sunscreens are the type that are often referenced when talking about natural sunscreen, and the two natural mineral blockers that commonly are used are Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. Not only are the ingredients different, but they interact very differently with your body compared to chemical sunscreen.
Mineral sunscreens work by sitting on the top layer of your skin creating a physical layer and reflecting the sun's rays off of your skin. This is why they will leave a slight whitening effect or colour on the skin. Since mineral blockers aren’t designed with one specific ray in mind, they are able to protect you against both UVB and UVA rays (see ‘Broad Spectrum’ above).
What about impact to human health and the environment?
Minerals like zinc are naturally occurring, and indeed important for your general health. Many people take zinc supplements to boost their nail and hair health. There are also concerns about nano particles, but the studies are inconclusive. There is no difference in effectiveness between nano and non-nano at this stage.
Regarding the environment, some studies have found that nano particle zinc oxide can cause damage to coral reefs also, however the volumes required to do damage are far higher than other chemical sunscreens like Oxybenzone.
But buyer beware; some sunscreen companies may use zinc as a natural active ingredient but add in other ingredients such as chemical sunscreens Oxybenzone or even Paraffin — a petroleum byproduct used in many skin care products —but still calling it a 'Natural' sunscreen.
For example, one competitor of SETT’s claim to have “reef friendly, biodegradable sunscreen” then proceed to list Octinoxate as a key active ingredient, which is one of the most harmful substances to bleaching of coral reefs. You can judge for yourself if this is a ‘Natural’ product.
What about Vitamin D and sun exposure?
Vitamin D is required for healthy bones, improved blood pressure, and has also been associated with overall improvements in mood and sense of wellbeing. Some people take vitamin D supplements to try and achieve this, however the most common way for your body to obtain Vitamin D is through direct exposure to the sun. So, this leaves us with a conundrum; we need sun exposure to absorb Vitamin D but it can also lead to sunburn, and skin cancer.
This is a decision that is particularly personal in nature, but increasingly organisations recommend that you take a balanced approach. I tend to follow the advice of skin cancer experts like The New Zealand Cancer Society. To summarise their recommendations, a short walk in the mid-morning or early-evening sun is enough to get a healthy dose of vitamin D during summer months. In winter, however, a walk in the sun with a short-sleeved shirt during the day should suffice.
That is a lot of information to digest. Here is how to put it into practice, and easily remember it.
3. Your Six Point checklist for choosing an effective natural sunscreen
1) Go for broad-spectrum (not just SPF level):
Broad-spectrum cover means the sunscreen will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays.
If you’re looking for SPF levels too, go for 30 and above as this is enough protection to be labelled ‘High Protection’ by the European Union.
2. Non-nano is best:
The biggest concern is that they can be inhaled. The jury is out on absorption into the bloodstream, so until we know more, and while there is a choice, perhaps stay away.
3. Avoid harsh chemicals
One of the reasons we develop natural skincare products is to avoid the harsh chemical ingredients that can cause painful reactions on the skin, like nasty allergens. This is before worrying about chemicals entering your bloodstream.
4. Avoid artificial preservatives
Parabens are often used in cosmetics as preservatives but are derived from petroleum production. The concern with parabens is the carcinogens found in petroleum products which are usually filtered out during the production process but the efficacy can vary by country and producer. Plus, anything we can do to lower the planet's dependence on oil production is a good thing.
5. Spot test for sensitive skin
Of course, everyone’s body is different, so if you have some concerns, be sure to spot test new products to ensure there are no adverse reactions before you apply it in larger amounts.
Note that it is recommended that children younger than six months old aren’t exposed to the sun at all due to their skin being so sensitive, and children older than six months use a product designed with their sensitive skin in mind.
6. Check the testing has been done to back-up the claims
Some sunscreen brands take pride in the fact that their products are homemade. That’s fine for some people, but it makes me nervous about the level of quality control; if someone manufactures skin care products in their kitchen some other completely unrelated chemicals might end up getting mixed into the formula and cause a nasty reaction.
For the record, All SETT products are all manufactured in ISO-accredited, professional, and audited facilities. Professional facilities reduce the risk of outside contamination to virtually zero.
Still keen on more information?
Below are links to websites which cover all of this information in more detail, and which I recommend you spend some time checking out to help stay informed and safe.
- The European Working Group is a non-profit, non-partizan organisation dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Their resources help you understand about ingredients in many daily products we use (cosmetics, food, cleaning agents), as well as great reports and research.
- Many countries have skin cancer societies who provide fantastic information about sun protection, sunburn, and more. In New Zealand, we have the Cancer Society, in Australia there is the Cancer Council, in the UK there is the British Skin Foundation and in the USA there is the Skin Cancer Foundation.
See you out there,
James (Mammoth) Marshall
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