Sunscreen Secrets: Shady Ingredients You Need to Avoid

With Skin Cancer Awareness Month trailing shortly behind us, the need to protect yourself from the sun is heating up. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined. While the myriad of sunscreen selections on the market has increased, so have rates of melanoma — the deadliest type of skin cancer. Without adequate protection, the risk of DNA damage caused from sunburn and the two most common forms of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, escalate.

The good news is, it’s never too late to start protecting yourself. Sun damage is cumulative, and contrary to what you may have heard, only 23 percent of lifetime sun exposure occurs by age 18. The bad news is, it’s not just solar protection we need, it’s protection from the array of dangerous chemicals found most name-brand sunscreens.

Consider the Sunscreen Scoring Source

What is the best sunscreen on the market today? It depends who you ask. For example, Consumer Reports just came out with their 2018 Annual Sunscreen Guide, which rated 73 lotions, sprays and sticks. La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk received a perfect score in the lotion category. However, I cross-referenced this with the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Sunscreens to determine — not just the SPF, or sunburn protection factor — but the hazard level that ranks products on a 0 to 10 scale in terms of both efficacy and toxicity, with 10 being the worst. This sunscreen received a hazard score of seven (at a whopping $35.99 a bottle!). Turns out this La Roche-Posay product contains oxybenzone, an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC), as well as PEG-8 Laurate with contamination concerns and organ toxicity.

In addition, Equate Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50 was rated almost perfect by Consumer Reports, but received a hazard score of five from the scientists at EWG. The Equate product contains oxybenzone, an EDC and synthetic fragrance linked to allergies and organ toxicity. Coppertone Water Babies Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50 was rated fourth in the lotion category by Consumer Reports, however EWG gave it a middling five hazard score.

What’s good for adults isn’t always the safest for babies. As adults, 60 percent of what goes on our skin is absorbed into our bloodstream, but infants and newborns have delicate skin, making topical absorption even greater. The 2017 worst scoring kids brands determined by EWG include: Banana Boat, Up & Up, Sea & Ski and Neutrogena.

Here are some basic do’s and don’ts when it comes to reading sunscreen ingredient labels and knowing what to choose — and what to lose.

5 Sunscreen Do’s

  • Zinc oxide: Offers broad spectrum, but this mineral can have a chalky, white texture. Look for non-nano zinc oxide.
  • Mexoryl SX: Offers UVA protection.
  • Titanium dioxide: Avoid nanoparticle or powder and spray versions of this mineral (should not be inhaled). Broad spectrum, but not as effective as zinc oxide for UVA protection.
  • SPF 30: The minimum level of protection factor recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology.
  • Broad spectrum: To assure both UVA and UVB protection.

11 Sunscreen Don’ts

  • Nano-particles: Molecular-sized nanoparticles enhance penetration of active ingredients, but could cross over into the blood stream, potentially causing systemic toxicity. Avoid loose powder or spray sunscreens using titanium dioxide or zinc oxide of any particle size.
  • Oxybenzone: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely detects oxybenzone in more than 96 percent of the American population. The chemical can cause allergic skin reactions, and studies suggest that it disrupts hormones in children and adults. In May 2018, Hawaiian lawmakers passed a bill banning oxybenzone in all sunscreens due to its role in coral bleaching and coral death. The bill awaits the governor’s signature before it becomes law. 
  • Retinyl palmitate (vitamin A): A National Toxicology Program study reveals that retinyl palmitate enhances skin cancer lesions in the presence of sunlight in animal research.
  • Octinoxate: This common sunscreen ingredient is shown to have hormone-mimicking effects on laboratory animals.
  • Parabens: Synthetic preservative — methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, etc. are endocrine disruptors.
  • Phthalates: Synthetic plasticizer, EDC. 75 percent of products with the ingredient “fragrance” contain phthalates.
  • Petrochemicals: including mineral oil, petrolatum and petroleum jelly. Skin irritation and contamination.
  • Synthetic fragrance: Hundreds of toxic chemicals can be hidden in the ingredient “fragrance.” Studies show 95 percent of the chemicals used in fragrances are derived from petroleum.
  • Synthetic colors: Synthetic colors can be derived from coal tar (i.e., Yellow #5, Blue #1 and Red #40).
  • Insect repellent: Can cause adverse health effects.
  • SPF over 50: The FDA contends that SPF ratings higher than 50 are misleading.

Sunscreen Recommendations

EWG has found 216 beach and sport sunscreens that meet their strict ratings criteria, however, I do have a few favorites of my own including Goddess Garden, which is made from only plant-based and mineral ingredients. Seventy percent to 80 percent of their ingredients are certified organic and the product line is reef safe, non-nano, broad spectrum and biodegradable.

I also like Promise Organics, which is an NSF certified, sun care collection formulated with certified organic ingredients and zinc oxide. It contains 100 percent natural and organic ingredients with broad spectrum protection and is non-nano.

In addition to applying healthy and environmentally-friendly sunscreen, cover up! Turns out that clothing and and hats can reduce your risk of burns by 27 percent. Also, in addition to sitting in the shade, wear UV protection sunglasses to protect yourself from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Finally, let’s not forget, sunscreen needs to be reapplied often; terms like waterproof are misleading and no longer allowed to be marketed. Enjoy your summer and remember, always choose minerals, not chemicals. When in doubt, think zinc.

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