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Sunscreen is supposed to protect us from the sun, but as more and more people use it, the incidence of skin cancer rises 4% every year. More sunscreen use, more skin cancer. Something’s not right. Petrochemicals in common sunscreens are damaging our healthy skin cells.Read your sunscreen labels because the ingredients matter. Marketing messages aren’t always true or clear. Make sure you know the ingredients you're putting on your skin. With so much confusion concerning sunscreen ingredients, we decided to bring you some facts.
The sunscreens most people use have some pretty nasty toxins and chemicals in them. Look at the ingredients of almost any well known sunscreen brand, and you’ll find some pretty bad stuff. Collectively, these do a decent job at preventing sunburn, but actually do more harm than good in stopping deep tissue damage, the kind that causes long term harm like premature skin aging and skin cancer.
Within seconds of application, oxybenzone penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. As a photocarcinogen that can attack DNA and increase production of free radicals, it promotes the formation of cancerous cells. It’s considered a contributing factor in the recent increase of melanoma cases among chemical sunscreen users. Research studies link higher concentrations of oxybenzone to various serious disorders, including endometriosis in older women, and lower birth weights in newborns. Some studies show it behaves similarly to the hormone estrogen, suggesting a link to breast cancer. It’s also been linked to eczema, and it can trigger allergic skin reactions and hormone disruptions. Needless to say, small children should avoid using products containing oxybenzone, but really, any human should avoid it.
Oxybenzone, once the sole ingredient used in traditional sunscreens to combat UVA rays, has become a media boogie-man in skincare, and rightfully so. In response, big sunscreen manufacturers have pivoted by switching to avobenzone. But like all other petrochemicals, avobenzone is a serious mismatch to human biochemistries, and although sellers of avobenzone products tend to claim it’s safe, its use is akin to a shell game. In reality, avobenzone’s health effects have barely been studied, and what we know so far is not good. Just like oxybenzone, avobenzone degrades in the sun, lowering its ability to screen UVA rays, releasing free radicals that increase cancer risk, accelerating skin aging and contributing to development of a myriad of allergies. Once avobenzone is more fully studied, we may know it’s as bad or worse than other petrochemicals or that it’s relatively less dangerous. But even at this early stage, it’s clear avobenzone presents significant and unnecessary health risks, just like its petrochemical cousins.
One of the most common ingredients in sunscreens, octinoxate is readily absorbed by the skin and helps other ingredients get absorbed. An endocrine disruptor, it mimics estrogen and can disrupt thyroid function. Hormone disruption is a common side effect, harmful for humans and even wildlife, should they come into contact after it leeches from humans into water. Octinoxate has been detected in human urine, blood and breast milk, indicating its systematic exposure to humans. Though SPF products are designed to protect skin from sun-induced aging, octinoxate may actually encourage premature aging, as it produces menacing free radicals that can damage skin and cells. According to the EWG, Octinoxate is a moderate hazard, primarily because it can lead to developmental and reproductive toxicity through enhanced skin absorption. Dangerous to any one, it should certainly not be used by pregnant women and children, due to its estrogen-like behavior.
Typically an ingredient in UVB-absorbing sunscreen and offering no UVA protection, homosalate helps sunscreen penetrate the skin. Homosalate is a potential endocrine disruptor, and studies in cells suggest it may impact hormones. In addition to direct health concerns following exposure, homosalate may enhance the body’s absorption of pesticides. Homosalate degrades when exposed to sunlight, and like all salicylates, it is not powerful enough to stand on its own as UVB protection and is almost always combined with other UVB chemical filters.
Octisalate is used to augment UVB protection in sunscreen. As a salicylate (a weak UVB absorber), octisalate is generally combined with other UV chemical filters. Octisalate typically degrades when exposed to sunlight. It is a penetration enhancer, increasing the amount of other ingredients passing through skin. Research indicates it is a weak hormone disruptor, forms toxic metabolites, and can enhance the penetration of toxic herbicides.
Octocrylene is readily absorbed by skin and accumulate within the body. It absorbs UVB (top-surface) and UVA (deep-skin) rays and produces free radicals that damage cells and cause DNA mutations. There is evidence that octocrylene is responsible for reproductive toxicity, although the trials used doses higher than would be used in cosmetics. Quick to biodegrade and then bioaccumulate, Octocrylene has also been found in fish. Studies are pending on the environmental effects to marine life.
Parabens inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeast, and molds, and have been used in personal-care products like shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, and sunscreens for years, allowing these products to survive for months, or years, during shipping and on store shelves. Studies now show parabens mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen, which is associated with certain forms of breast cancer. Parabens in their various forms can induce allergic reactions, hormone disruption, along with developmental and reproductive toxicity. And what makes them especially dangerous is that they’re estrogen disruptors, associated with infertility, abnormal development sexual organs, obesity, asthma, allergies, benign tumors of the uterus and digestive tract, and breast cancer. Parabens are bad stuff.
PABA was introduced into sunscreens in the 1970s because of its natural ability to absorb UVB (shallow surface) rays. Most sunscreens today don’t use PABA. Like oxybenzone, it was found to increase sensitivity to allergic reactions, and because so many consumers were experiencing allergic reactions to it, it gained a reputation as being a skin sensitizer. It also tended to stain clothing. Studies in the 1990s raised the concern that PABA could actually encourage formation of cancerous cells in the skin by releasing free radicals when exposed to sunlight. The good news is that most manufacturers have phased out the use of PABA because of its tendency to cause allergic reactions. Many well known brands like to highlight how they’re PABA free. But this is sort of like saying it’s plutonium free, because PABA is so universally understood (by any company paying attention) as bad, PABA free is the case for almost all sunscreens. Those that list PABA free as a benefit tend to be ones with other, really bad chemicals and toxins.
Otherwise known as Vitamin A, retinyl palmitate is an extremely useful ingredient almost everywhere throughout the body, except sitting on the skin exposed to sunlight. As an ingredient in sunscreen, its purpose is to improve product performance against the aging effects of UV exposure. But on sun-exposed skin, retinyl palmitate may actually speed development of skin tumors and lesions. The German and Norwegian governments have gone so far as to warn that many people are exposed to excessive amounts of vitamin A, and that personal care products contribute significantly to this problem.
Hence, consumers should avoid sunscreens, lip products and skin lotions that contain vitamin A, which can also be listed as retinal palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol. Daily skin-related use of retinyl palmitate by a pregnant woman may also be toxic to the developing fetus. Such use has also been linked to brain swelling, developmental toxicity, cellular changes, and organ toxicity. Used with the skin, retinyl palmitate produces excess reactive oxygen species which can lead to cell death, and the compound may also be involved in cardiovascular disease.
Sunscreen is often injected with artificial fragrances as a means of making the product smell better to buyers. The list of chemicals used for this purpose is lengthy, and you’ll rarely see the actual chemical name of a fragrance listed, as many chemicals are grouped together under the umbrella term “artificial fragrance.” Cancer, nervous system disorders, allergies, and birth defects are some of the shocking concerns that have been linked to various artificial fragrances. Of course, we recommend avoiding such unnecessary chemicals in sunscreens.
Sunscreens often contain penetration enhancers, which help chemicals soak into the skin. Studies indicate that concurrent use of sunscreens and pesticides leads to increased skin adsorption of the pesticide. The FDA is studying the safety of sunscreens with insect repellents and is considering new labeling requirements. Also consider that bugs may not be a problem during the hours that UV exposure peaks (eliminating the whole reason for the combination). You may also need to reapply sunscreen and bug repellent at different frequencies, and DEET (contained in many bug repellents) may reduce the SPF of sunscreen, and it’s a good practice to avoid using repellent chemicals on the face, since the fumes can be inhaled, and the chemicals can irritate and damage the eyes. In short, bug repellent sunscreen combos are a clever idea, but ultimately, they’re a misconceived option.
The sole sunscreen-active ingredient that’s FDA approved for use on children, Zinc Oxide has been scientifically proven as the world’s safest sunscreen and most effective UVA/UVB physical sun screen barrier. Effective across the entire UVA and UVB spectrum, zinc oxide holds tight to its electrons when it absorbs UV energy, limiting creation of free radicals. It’s non-toxic and safe for marine life. Stable in sunlight, it provides greater protection from deep tissue UVA rays than titanium oxide (a toxic heavy metal) or any other sunscreen chemical approved in the US. It is mildly antimicrobial, and it’s non-comedogenic (i.e. zinc oxide won’t block pores). In its non-nano variety (without really small particles), it does not penetrate the skin, sitting on the surface to absorb UV rays and convert them to infrared heat, which radiates harmlessly away from the body.
Zinc oxide MUST be non nano to be fully safe. Nanoparticles are smaller than 100 nanometers, and some companies have used them in their sunscreens to make them less white. The problem is that such small particles, while not necessarily harmful to humans, easily enter coral and other marine biosystems and cause significant damage. In short, nano sized zinc oxide is NOT reef safe.
Some safe sunscreens add antioxidants like Vitamin E and Vitamin C to their formulations to reduce free radicals caused by UV rays. Studies are beginning to show that the addition of antioxidants to safe sunscreen formulations can reduce the numbers of reactive oxygen species in skin more than two-fold. In addition to Vitamins C and E, good natural antioxidants to look for are olive oil, sunflower oil, jojoba oil, and coconut oil. But remember to stay away from Vitamin A as a skin application (see the “Bad” list).
While many sunscreens list “organic” on the label, it’s important to read all active and inactive ingredients, then decide for yourself. Many so called “organic” sunscreens contain oxybenzone and other dangerous chemicals and toxins. For a product to be truly organic, all ingredients must be food grade organic quality. In other words, the entire product must be fully edible, and this just isn’t possible in sunscreen, even for the safest, because zinc oxide isn’t deemed edible. However, you can (and should) choose sunscreens containing certified organic ingredients (for all ingredients that CAN be).
1. Know your ingredients — Flip over your sunscreen and read the ingredients. We want everyone to know what good ingredients are, regardless of whether they use our products or not. Your health is worth it.
2. Buy safe sunscreen — Waxhead is dedicated to using only the healthiest, safest, most effective ingredients in our sunscreens. Shop Safe Sunscreen here.
3. Teach a friend — If you know someone who might still be buying sunscreen with questionable ingredients, please share this post with him/her.
We built Waxhead’s four modern, sun-safety strategies on traditional methods used for thousands of years.