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How safe is your sunscreen?

I love a sunburnt country, but not a sunburnt body. While we are so fortunate to live in Australia, vigilance is required to protect your skin from the sun’s harsh rays. Most of us have been taught from a young age to “slip, slop, slap”, but what about how to choose a safe sunscreen? Sunscreens work to protect skin from ultraviolet A (UVA) light, which causes premature ageing, and ultraviolet B (UVB) light, which causes sunburn and skin damage; protecting your skin from both is crucial for long-term health. However, sunscreens are not all created equal, and many contain harmful chemicals that have been shown to cause allergies and disrupt hormonal communication in the body. Sunscreen labels can be confusing and at times quite misleading, so let me decipher them so you know how to confidently choose an effective and safe sunscreen for both you and our planet.

SPF and broad-spectrum

SPF stands for sun protection factor, and the number indicates the amount of protection against UVB rays. A higher SPF number does not indicate significantly more protection against UVB rays.

  • SPF 15 blocks 93 per cent of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 blocks 97 per cent of UVB rays
  • SPF 50 blocks 98 per cent of UVB rays
  • SPF 100 blocks 99 per cent of UVB rays
  • SPF only blocks against UVB rays, whereas a broad-spectrum sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Water-resistant

“Water-resistant” refers to how long the sunscreen will stay on wet skin. Water-resistant usually means the sunscreen stays effective for 40 minutes in the water; very water-resistant sunscreens will be effective for 80 minutes.

Reef-safe

Unfortunately, there is a lack of regulation around using the term “reef-safe” on labels, so be discerning and check the ingredients list to be sure they are safe for coral and sea life. If the active sun cream ingredient is anything other than non-nanomaterial titanium dioxide or non-nanomaterial zinc oxide, it may be harmful to the sea.

Ingredients to avoid

Oxybenzone

Oxybenzone is the most toxic sunscreen ingredient in use and is associated with causing allergies and disrupting hormonal communication and actions in the body. Studies have shown oxybenzone to be linked with causing lower testosterone in males, increased risk of breast cancer and endometriosis in females and cancer in rats after high exposure. Oxybenzone may potentially exhibit greater harm to children and should therefore be avoided completely.

Octinoxate

Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate) is an organic
UV filter. Animal studies showed that octinoxate impacts hormonal communication and thyroid hormone production. Octinoxate has been banned in many countries due to its negative impact on coral reefs and sea life.

Homosalate

Homosalate is an organic UV filter that currently is not confirmed to be safe for topical use. Homosalate is an endocrine disruptor and causes toxic by-products when broken down in the body.

Octisalate

Octisalate is an organic UV filter that has been shown to cause allergic reactions and may have endocrine-disrupting effects, resulting in this chemical being able to weakly bind to oestrogen receptors in the body.

Octocrylene

Octocrylene is an organic compound that is associated with skin allergies and endocrine disruption and is harmful to coral reefs and sea life.

Avobenzone

Avobenzone is an organic filter that is often used in broad-spectrum sunscreens for its UVA protection. By-products of avobenzone have been shown to cause allergic reactions and impact hormonal communication and functions in the body.

Safer sunscreen ingredients

Mineral sunscreens are a safer choice to protect your skin from the sun, because instead of using chemicals to filter out UV rays mineral sunscreens sit on top of the skin and physically block the ultraviolet rays.

Mineral sunscreens are made with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, in either nanoparticles or non-nanoparticles. When choosing a safe sunscreen you want to look for non-nanoparticles, because this means the particles won’t be absorbed into your bloodstream and instead sit on top of your skin, blocking the sun’s rays.

Titanium dioxide

Titanium dioxide is a naturally occurring mineral found in the earth’s crust that has the ability to absorb UVB and some UVA rays, but may not provide entire UVA protection. Choose a cream-based sunscreen and never a spray or powdered product
as this mineral carries inhalation concerns.

Zinc oxide

Zinc oxide is a naturally occurring UV absorber offering broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

When it comes to a product that you put on your body most days, it is worth taking your time and familiarising yourself with its safety and effectiveness.

You can check the safety of your sunscreen ingredients at ewg.org.

Ema Taylor

Ema Taylor

Ema Taylor is a naturopath, clinical nutritionist and certified fertility awareness educator. For more, visit emataylor.com or @emataylornaturopathy on Instagram.

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