The Not So Sunny Side of Sunscreen
It’s summer and most of us have a ready-to-go beach bag filled with towels, beach toys, and of course, sunscreen. But have you given much thought to what’s in that sunscreen that you are slathering all over your and your kids’ skin?
I was at the beach last weekend and was inundated with the toxic smell of aerosol sunscreen wafting through the air. People all around me were spraying it all over their bodies and their kids’ faces without a second thought to what types of chemicals they might be inhaling and their effect on their health. After all, if it’s sold in the U.S., it must be safe! The FDA is surely looking out for us and our families, right? WRONG!
Although there have been countless articles written on the dangers of most sunscreens that you’ll find on the drugstore shelves, it seems that very few of us are paying attention. Whether at the beach or at the pool, most people are slathering themselves with known carcinogens or, worse yet (and my biggest pet peeve!), using aerosol spray-on sunscreens and releasing millions of nanoparticles (i.e., particles known for causing lung damage as well as developmental issues in animals) into the air that they (and everyone around them) is breathing.
My frustration inspired this blog, which will cover the facts and myths of sun exposure, touch on the importance of Vitamin D, talk about how to select right supplement, and of course, sunscreens (i.e., what to avoid and how to select a safer alternative). You can scroll down or click on the sections below to skip ahead:
The SUN: FRIEND OR FOE?
The sun and sunlight have gotten a bad rap over the years. There is no denying that sun exposure comes with the risk of overexposure, leading to sunburn and possibly skin cancer. But the sun also provides our bodies with important health benefits, (e.g., production of vitamin D3, which is imperative to good health), and should not be avoided entirely, something many of us are lead to believe. As a result of this fallacy, Americans are using more sunscreen than ever before (using an SPF15 sunscreen can reduce vitamin D formation by as much as 99%) or choosing to completely avoid the sun altogether. It’s not surprising that nearly half of us suffer from a Vitamin D deficiency.
Why is Vitamin D a big deal?
Vitamin D, otherwise known as the “sunshine vitamin,” is vital to good health. It plays an essential role in maintaining healthy bones and regulating the immune system, among having many other important functions. Vitamin D exists in two forms: D2 and D3. Both forms of Vitamin D can be derived from eating certain foods, but the latter is the hormonally active form of vitamin D and is primarily derived from direct sun exposure. Consequently, inadequate sunlight exposure is one of the major risk factors for a vitamin D deficiency, which has been associated with many serious conditions, including;
Brittle bones, and even
Premature death (A University of California study found that people with an average age of 55 who had lower blood levels of vitamin D were twice as likely to die prematurely as those with higher levels)
How do you get enough Vitamin D?
One way to make sure that you get enough Vitamin D3 is to get enough direct sunlight, which means without sunscreen or clothing (strive to have at least 40% of your skin uncovered, as face and hands are not enough). Fair-skinned folks only need about 15 minutes a day, but darker skin needs more time to absorb the amount sunlight necessary to produce an adequate level of vitamin D.
For those of us who live in colder climates or don't have the time to bask in the sun every day, proper nutrition (e..g, eating enough Vitamin D-rich foods, such as fatty-fish and egg yolks) and supplementing with with cod liver oil and a high quality Vitamin D supplement.
Choosing a Vitamin D supplement
There are a number of factors that must go into choosing a Vitamin D supplement:
Choose Vitamin D3 (or cholecalciferol), which is the recommended form of vitamin D and the natural form of vitamin D that your body makes from sunlight
Make sure that your D3 supplement contains K2, as this duo works together for optimal health and maximum absorption
Avoid any supplements that contain synthetic preservatives, fillers, binders, or added sugar
Choose sublingual drops whenever possible. They avoid the digestive tract, thereby ensuring the fastest, most efficient pathway into your body, maximum absorption and therefore, the maximum benefit to your health.
Take your D3 supplement with your biggest meal of the day. D3 is a fat soluble vitamin which is best absorbed when fat is present in your body (about 15 grams or more -- that's at least 3 teaspoons of oil or other fats). In fact, taking it with a meal increases absorption by 32-57 percent as compared to taking it with just water. The fattier the meal, the better — at least for absorption.
Make sure to have your blood level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D checked annually and please consult with your doctor when changing your Vitamin D intake (or commencing any new supplement regimen).
5 Rules FOR Buying Sunscreen
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. While we can turn to sunscreens to help protect ourselves from some of the negative side effects of too much sun, all sunscreens are not created equal. In fact, some controversial research suggests that sunscreens may even contribute to cancer by forming potentially harmful breakdown products when absorbed into the skin and enter the bloodstream. Whether or not a link actually exists, we can't deny that most sunscreens contain many dangerous chemicals that are harmful to our health.
We also can’t deny that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), skin cancer rates have doubled in the last 30 years, as has sunscreen use. And despite this data, the CDC, AMA, and cancer industry continue to recommend that we avoid the sun and use sunscreen (without pointing out that many of these sunscreens contain dangerous chemicals that can actually cause cancer), while ignoring the importance of vitamin D and a healthy diet in skin cancer prevention.
Worse yet, according to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) report, about 73% of sunscreens n the market don't even work.
So, how do you choose a sunscreen that's effective and healthy? You can start by following the following guidelines:
1. Avoid aerosol (spray) sunscreens
Simply put, aerosol sunscreens are NOT safe for the skin or the lungs. The FDA announced its plan to investigate the potentially harmful effects of inhaling aerosol sunscreens in 2011 (but never finalized their recommendations) and Consumer Reports recently issued a warning against the sprays that advises parents to stay away from using them on children.
First, it's very difficult to apply aerosol sunscreens in a thickness that will provide adequate protection from the sun (especially those aerosols that are alcohol-based). Aerosol sunscreens are thinner and during application, it’s likely that you’ll miss some spots that will be vulnerable to sun damage.
Second, and even more importantly, spraying your aerosol sunscreen releases millions of nanoparticles (i.e., particles known for causing lung damage as well as developmental issues in animals) into the air, increasing your risk of inhaling harmful chemicals directly into your lungs and RUDELY subjecting everyone around you to the same threat.
In the same way as secondhand smoke can cause cancer, the harmful chemicals in spray sunscreen (and there are plenty!) are being delivered to your (and your kids’) lungs. Allergy doctors in particular are concerned about its potential to trigger allergies or asthma in children.
And if you do use a sunscreen spray, even if it’s a safer product, NEVER haphazardly spray it all over your body, and especially not your face. Spray it in your hand, holding the nozzle close to the skin to keep it from becoming airborne, and then rub it thoroughly into your skin to ensure you didn’t miss any spots and that you have an even layer of coverage.
2. Avoid Sunscreens that contain Harmful ingredients
Sunscreen is one of the most health-damaging products you put your skin. Not only does it contain dangerously toxic ingredients, but you’re slathering it thickly ALL OVER your body, sometimes several times a day, and ALL SUMMER LONG!
So let's look at some of the most toxic chemicals in most sunscreens:
🚫 OXYBENZONE has been rated an 8 (on a scale from 1-10, with 1 being the safest and 10 being the most harmful) on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) toxicity rating scale. This means that it is one of the most toxic ingredients found in cosmetic and personal care products. Oxybenzone has been linked to hormone disruption and has the potential to damage cells that may lead to skin cancer. Because it may mimic hormones, oxybenzone can cause endometriosis and can pose a risk to reproductive systems. It has also been increasingly linked to early puberty in girls, low sperm count and male infertility, and an increase in hormone-related cancers. Researchers state that oxybenzone may be even more estrogenic than BPA, and it was named “Allergen of the Year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2014. And don’t forget that oxybenzone is not only toxic to our bodies, but it destroys coral reefs, which is why it has been banned in places like Hawaii and Key West.
🚫 RETINYL PALMITATE (VITAMIN A PALMITATE) is a form of vitamin A and can be found in many sunscreens, which is ironic given that it does most of its damage when skin is exposed to the sun. This known human reproductive toxicant has been banned in the EU and restricted in Canada because it may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight (so why in the world would they put this in sunscreen???!!!). Vitamin A can spur excess skin growth (a.k.a. hyperplasia), and retinyl palmitate can form free radicals that damage DNA when exposed to sunlight. In addition, its presence in cosmetics, sunscreens and personal care products could contribute to vitamin A toxicity due to excessive exposure.
🚫 FRAGRANCE or PARFUM (which should just be listed on the ingredients label as “hidden toxins”) is packed with dangerous, synthetic chemicals, such as phthalates, which are powerful hormone disruptors linked to pre-term births, birth defects, decreased sperm counts, reduced female fertility, and a worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms. However, this innocuous but misleading term is meant to hide hundreds of these ingredients because they are considered “trade secrets” in the eyes of the government, which obviously places the interests of the corporation above the safety of us, the consumers.
🚫 AVOBENZONE is one of the most popular UV filters but when exposed to chlorine, it can break down into hazardous chemical compounds right on the skin. Moreover, according to the EWG, “Sunlight can cause this ingredient to break down and lose its effectiveness for skin protection.” Kind of counterintuitive, don’t you think?
🚫 ISOBUTANE is a compressed gas that‘s used as aerosol propellants. It is in the propane family. It is flammable. It is industrial. It is not good for our lungs!.
🚫 NANOPARTICLES are minute ingredients that can cross the blood-brain barrier. They are used in sunscreen because they penetrate easily and don’t leave behind a chalky, white finish on the skin. Nanoparticles are so small they can enter individual cells, even DNA. When applied to the skin, they can cause gene damage, bioaccumulate in the body (i.e., they can’t be metabolized or flushed out by our organs, and just keep piling up until they make us sick), and they can be carcinogenic. The consequences are even more dangerous when they are inhaled. Just think of how many poor kids you’ve seen being doused with this stuff by one of their parents. 🙈
3. Choose a mineral sunscreen.
Of the three sunscreen options - non-mineral, mineral, and a combination of the two - always select a mineral sunscreen, since the non-mineral options could penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream, where they may disrupt hormones, trigger allergic responses and release free radicals as they break down. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, contain zinc or titanium, which do not break down in sunlight, are not usually absorbed, and are non-allergenic. They also tend to be more effective at blocking UVA rays than non-mineral sunscreens and are generally considered safer, although they sometimes contain nanoparticles, which are not tightly regulated and haven't been studied for long-term impact.
4. Beware of ultra-high SPFs and stick with an SPF between 30-50
Australia caps SPF values at 30, the EU and Japan at 50, and Canada allows a maximum of “50+."
The FDA has long contended that any SPF higher than 50 is “inherently misleading” (FDA 2007), and in 2011 they proposed a regulation to ban the sales of labels higher than SPF 50+ but, as in the case of aerosol sunscreens, the agency has neither completed work on this rule or enforced it. The EWG believes that that there are at least five solid reasons to never buy any SPF above 50:
1) They offer marginally better sunburn protection:
Contrary to popular belief, SPF15 is NOT half as effective as an SPF30. In reality, SPF15 filters about 93% of UV-B rays; SPF30 about 97%; and SPF50 98%. The difference between SPF30 and SPF50 is a mere 1% filtering improvement. Dermatologists generally recommend a sunscreen with SPF30 protection, and even people who are most sensitive to sunburn will be adequately protected with an SPF between 30-50 (as long as they are applied correctly).
2) They protect less effectively against UVA rays
Although UVA rays do not cause a sunburn, they have been shown to penetrate deeper into the skin, cause skin aging and wrinkling, and are associated with a higher risk of developing melanoma. Most US sunscreens are designed and oriented to block UVB rays which cause sunburn. Because the ingredients used to focus on blocking UVB rays do not harmonize with those used against UVA rays, higher SPF sunscreens are actually less effective at blocking the latter.
3) SPF labs are not the real world: The intense UV light used in laboratory SPF tests is different than the conditions experienced in the real world (not to mention inconsistent results between different labs). What one company calculates to be SPF100 another company may determine to be SPF30, with only the slightest change to light intensity or the thickness applied. In 2011, P&G wrote the FDA, warning that SPF values should be capped at 50+ because the current system is “at best, misleading to consumers” and “may inappropriately influence their purchase decision."
4) They provide a false sense of security, which leads to bad behavior
Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) have shown that high-SPF products spur “profound changes in sun behavior,” including staying in the sun longer, forgeting to reapply, going in the water too soon, and failing to compensate with supplemental protection, such as hats and umbrellas. The effect is increased sun exposure and an increased risk of skin damage and melanoma.
5) They contain toxic ingredients that pose greater health risks
High-SPF products require higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals, which can penetrate the skin causing tissue damage, hormone disruption, and allergic reaction. Without the additional gains in the area of proven extra protection from skin damage, these high SPF products are just not worth the additional health risk.
5. Ignore misleading claims
In 2011, the FDA banned the use of claims such as "waterproof" and "sweatproof" on sunscreen bottles, because these marketing terms misled consumers. However, marketers are still allowed to use many other terms, like "sun shield" and "age shield," with the intent of making you believe that their products offer full protection against any potential harmful effects from the sun. As a result, many consumers trust that sunscreen is all they need to protect their skin, and this is simply not so.
My two cents
Here’s my personal criteria for selecting a safer sunscreen. The sunscreen must:
Protect against the sun effectively (this includes broad spectrum protection and water resistant properties)
Use non-toxic and safe ingredients and without nanoparticles that I would feel safe using on my own child, and
Not leave you looking shiny and silver, like many of the safer, zinc-based sunscreen options out there
My Favorite Safer Sunscreens
There is no sunscreen that can block out all of the sun's rays, so it's clear that the best sunscreen is a hat and a shirt. By covering the skin, you don't have to worry about burning, chemicals, or reapplication. However, that isn't always realistic and we have to depend on sunscreen when we go to the beach or when we play sports, etc. So in addition to following the above six rules when choosing a sunscreen, it is important to check out the EWG database to see how your choice is rated.
For the past two years, I have been using Beautycounter Countersun sunscreens and am absolutely in love with the products. They feature a tinted moisturizer with SPF 20, sunscreen lotion with SPF 30 in 2 sizes (full size and travel size), a sunscreen mist (full size and travel size), a sunscreen stick (can’t live without this one!), a tinted sunscreen mist (my new fave!), and the new after-sun cooling gel in monoi scent, which smells like heaven! So let’s take a closer look at these products and why I am in looooove!
* Please note that I only write, rave about, and recommend products that I have comprehensively researched, personally use or have used, and absolutely love.
Acording to the EWG, the healthiest sunscreens contain non-nan0 titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. And these are exactly the ingredients in Beautycounter Countersun products. Not only do these sunscreens NOT contain harmful ingredients, but they offer powerful protection against UVA, UVB, and even BLUE LIGHT (not many other sunscreens do) and they go on streak-free and without a chalky or milky residue.
So let’s look at which products might work best for you.
Dew Skin Tinted Moisturizer SPF 20
This is my everyday go-to. I’m generally super casual and simple. I live in my gym clothes and the Dew Skin Tinted Moisturizer SPF 20, winner of Allure's Best of Beauty Award (I’ll also throw on some brilliant brow gel and lip conditioner, but that’s the extent of my make up most days).
The Dew doesn’t just serve to protect your skin from the sun, but it evens out your skin tone and moisturizes… all without any toxic ingredients. It's lightweight, but “buildable” coverage leaves skin luminous and glowy (a quality our skin loses as we age). Black currant, peony flower root extract, and vitamin C reduce the appearance of age spots and enhance skin brightness, while sodium hyaluronate promotes firmer, smoother-looking skin.
Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion
Unlike many of the "safe" sunscreens, the Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion is lightweight, water-resistant, and goes on smoothly, like a body lotion. It blends into the skin quickly and seamlessly without leaving white streaks or milky residue, and even helps hydrate your skin while protecting against damaging UVA, UVB and Blue Light.
I personally love it because it's easy to apply, goes on streak-free, smells great, and lasts a long time (I used mine all summer and still had a little left for the winter holidays). Most importantly, I know that it provides excellent protection from the sun and does so without harmful chemicals, for which it has earned my trust and EWG's highest rating of 1 (on a scale from 1-10, with 1 being the safest, and 10 containing the most dangerous ingredients).
Oh, and it also comes in a travel size… and a MIST (if you absolutely can’t live without a spray sunscreen—but please, even when using a safer spray, spray it in your hand first and then apply it. Even safer products aren’t meant to be inhaled!)… and even a TINTED mist, which makes you look like you have some color before you even hit the beach.
Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Stick
This is probably my favorite sunscreen product. Shaped like a deodorant, it glides on super easy without leaving any residue. Here are my top four reasons for loving this stick:
It's super compact and fits in even the smallest purses. I personally store one in just about every bag I own in the event of a “sun-mergency.”
It goes on completely clear (see video below) and is particularly useful for squirmy kids.
No mirror necessary because there is nothing to rub in. You can slather it all over your face and have full confidence that you aren't sporting streaks all over because your husband hasn’t noticed. 🙈
The smaller size is better suited and more convenient to put on your face. However, if you have younger kids, the big one is fantastic for quick and easy application to the body. It's a snap, because you don't have to rub it in and they can even do it themselves (with supervision, of course).
In my humble opinion (or IMHO, as the cool kids say), the Countersun Sunscreen Stick is worth every penny because it's so quick and easy to apply, smells great, and lasts forever! Like all Beautycounter Countersun products, it provides excellent broad spectrum protection from UVA and UVB rays, and blue light.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Victoria Gregory is an Integrative Nutritionist and founder of NEWTRITION NEWYOU. Her focus—whether with private clients, readers of her blog, or her followers on social media— is whole body wellness, incorporating whole-food nutrition, supplementation, exercise, toxin-free living, and mindset coaching. Victoria’s personal mission is to help make the world a healthier place, one person at a time, and she has helped thousands of people find joy and self-love through better eating habits and mindfulness. Learn more about Victoria.