Experts agree you need a sunscreen with full spectrum UVA & UVB protection and an SPF, or sun-protection factor, of 15 or higher. Dermatologists recommend SPF 30. But with hundreds of sunscreens on the market, how do you know which to choose?
You have two basic choices for sunscreen: Chemical or Mineral. Both can be equally effective. But what they are made of, and how they work, really sets them apart.
Chemical sunscreens are the most common type. They usually contain between two and six of the following chemicals: Oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene and homosalate. These active agents absorb into your skin, undergo a chemical reaction with the sun’s radiation, then absorb and release the energy as heat. Other chemicals like retinyl palmitate and parabens are also typically added as preservatives or skin soothing agents.
Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as their main ingredient. These are naturally occurring minerals, recreated to produce sunscreen. Mineral sunscreens do not absorb into your skin or react with the sun’s rays. Instead, they form a physical barrier on top of your skin to deflect or block radiation, which is why they’re also known as ‘physical sunscreens.’
What We Recommend and Why
We recommend using mineral sunscreens with full spectrum UVA & UVB protection and an SPF of 30.
Mineral sunscreens don’t typically irritate your skin. Plus, they are generally considered safer to use – both for your health and that of the oceans, lakes, and rivers in which you swim. The National Park Service has even issued an advisory, asking that people who visit Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or other U.S. areas with coral reef use only mineral sunscreens.
Mineral sunscreens have a bad rap for being ‘pasty white’ and difficult to apply. But so many new and better products have come on the market in recent years – we’ve really moved into the next generation of mineral sunscreens. You’re sure to find one that fits your and your family’s needs.
The Chemical Controversy
There are three basic concerns causing controversy over chemical sunscreens:
As the chemicals in chemical sunscreens break down, they release free radicals known to accelerate skin aging. These chemicals can also cause skin reactions in people with sensitive skin. Anyone that’s had a rash from chemical sunscreen is reluctant to use it again, potentially trading short-term discomfort or embarrassment for long-term health risks.
Potential health risks from chemical sunscreens have only recently been studied, but initial findings seem to indicate there’s a genuine cause for concern. Scientists have found that retinyl palmitate used in chemical sunscreens may increase the risk of skin cancer. Many other ingredients like oxybenzone and parabens are known or suspected hormone disruptors. Parabens, in particular, mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen, which is associated with certain forms of breast cancer in women. Evidence suggests these chemicals don’t just affect women, either. One recent study showed that chemical sunscreens may impact male fertility by weakening sperm.
Vast areas of coral reefs are dying around the world. This is called “coral bleaching,” because the small animals that give coral its color die, leaving the white ‘skeleton’ of their former home behind. It’s devastating to imagine the loss of coral reefs that so many enjoy for snorkeling and diving. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is even being affected, and scientists are trying to determine the extent of the damage.
Chemical sunscreen is certainly not the main cause of coral’s rapid decline, but its contribution is raising serious concern. Some 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash into reef areas each year, concentrating at popular swimming, snorkeling, and diving spots. Oxybenzone, the primary ingredient in most chemical sunscreens, has been proven to contribute to coral bleaching in even small amounts: A single drop in an area the size of six Olympic swimming pools can be toxic. The study that proves this concludes: “Oxybenzone poses a hazard to coral reef conservation and threatens the resiliency of coral reefs to climate change.”
So what’s the controversy? While there's strong proof that the chemicals in sunscreen damage coral, there’s currently only mounting circumstantial evidence that the chemicals in chemical sunscreens are potentially harming people. Tests are underway, but are a long way from being conclusive. And in the meantime, experts generally still say that any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen. We won’t argue with that. But we take the position that it’s better to be safe than sorry. And that’s why we’re confident in saying that mineral sunscreens are a safer, better suncare solution.
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SunSavvy will help you be better informed and stay up-to-date about sun safety and suncare products, so that you can choose the best suncare solutions for yourself and your family.