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10 February 2017

What is in your sunscreen?

Choosing a sunscreen can be hard. There are numerous options on the market that offer various levels of protection and contain countless ingredients both of which can be good and bad for your health and the environment.

When purchasing sunscreen, our main aim is to protect ourselves from the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays. Our relentless quest for sun protection can sometimes lead us to believe the chemical produced sunscreen products developed and marketed by multinational corporations offer the best protection, but the question remains - how are these products affecting our health and the environment?

Luckily, the earth produces a natural sunblock that is just as effective at protecting your skin from the sun without the potentially harmful synthetic ingredients. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are two natural ingredients that protect your skin from sun damage. They form a topical layer that physically blocks the sun’s rays from penetrating the skin.

Titanium dioxide comes from titanium which has a natural white chalky appearance that is highly reflective. Zinc oxide comes from mineral zinc and is manufactured into a substance that is a highly effective sunblock. Similar to titanium dioxide, zinc oxide makes your skin look white when applied and feels slightly heavy on the skin.

Both substances are effective at protecting your skin from the sun however, zinc oxide provides the most protection due to its ability to block out various types of rays. UVA (UV-aging) and UVB (UV-burning) are separate rays that affect the skin differently. Titanium dioxide protects the skin from UVB and short UVA rays, whereas zinc oxide blocks long UVA rays providing further protection against various rays. To offer broad spectrum protection, zinc oxide is often combined with additional UVB blockers.

Conventional sun protection products are commonly made with a concoction of synthetic ingredients that pose a threat to your health and the environment. The ingredients listed below are commonly included in most chemically produced sunscreen products and ones you should avoid using.

1. Oxybenzone is a penetration enhancer that helps the skin absorb additional chemicals. When this substance is exposed to UV rays it experiences a chemical reaction which can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions. This chemical has also been recognised to disrupt hormones.

2. Octinoxate is a chemical used in most commercial sunscreens that contain SPF. Our skin absorbs this substance easily and promotes the absorption of other ingredients. Octinoxate isn’t known for causing allergic reactions, however the substance has been linked to effecting hormones and endangering wildlife if leaked into waterways.

3. Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate) helps to improve the anti-aging properties of sunscreens. Retinyl Palmitate is a combination of Vitamin A and palmitic acid. Studies have linked this substance to numerous health concerns including the ability to increase the development of malignant cells and skin tumours. When retinyl is exposed to UV rays, it breaks down and releases toxic free radicals that can damage cells, DNA and promote cancer growth.

4. Homosalate is a substance that helps sunscreen penetrate your skin and absorb UV rays. The chemical is easily absorbed through our skin and accumulates in our bodies at a rate much faster than our body can process it. As this chemical accumulates in our body, it becomes toxic and can disrupts hormones.

5. Octocrylene is a UV ray absorbing chemical that produces oxygen radicals when exposed to UV light which can cause further damage to cells and cause mutations. This substance also has the ability to accumulate in your body. This substance can be toxic when released into the environment.

6. Paraben Preservatives have been known to cause allergic reactions when applied. Studies have also revealed the substance can disrupt hormones, and cause developmental and reproductive toxicity.

Although sunscreen is an important product to use to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays, the best form of protection it to cover up and stay out of the sun as much as possible.

Related: What toxic chemicals are in your toothpaste?; Looming health hazards of synthetic chemical repellents; Why is BPA the only concern?

Author & Editor

Tracey Bailey is the founder of Biome Eco Stores and mother of two. After working in corporate communications and starting a family, she made a choice to be part of the solution to our planet's future and started Biome Eco Stores. Tracey is passionate about educating the community about living eco-friendly and sustainable lives through her extended product, chemical, health and environmental knowledge.


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