What to consider when choosing a sunscreen

With so many sunscreens to choose from, we break down some of the things to consider when deciding which products to use. Summer is in full swing and its essential to keep our skin protected while having fun in the sun.

We recommend:

  • Choosing a barrier, mineral based cream with a SPF of at least 30+ and apply every two hours or after swimming & exercising.
  • Using broad-spectrum sunscreens as they block both UVA and UVB.
  • Always using shade, sunnies, hats and clothing as a first line of defence.
  • Choosing a product that isn’t harmful to our planet.
  • Being mindful that sun exposure is our main source of Vitamin D and it is a very common deficiency in society.

Here’s why…

The sun provides all of the energy on earth in the form of electromagnetic radiation. Sunlight includes visible light, infrared, and ultraviolet (UV) parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. As sunlight travels through the Earth’s atmosphere it is filtered and some of the UV rays are absorbed, whilst the ones that make it through can act on our skin to produce vitamin D, and to tan and /or burn us. UV radiation can mutate DNA, and thereby cause melanoma and other skin cancers. There are different wavelengths of radiation and in relation to sun protection UVA and UVB are the two important ones. It is now known that UVA not only causes ageing and wrinkling, but also skin cancer, and UVB causes sunburn and skin cancer including melanoma. So always choose sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB – these are called ‘broad-spectrum’.

Sunscreens provide either chemical or barrier protection (or both) against these sun rays. Barrier protection, provided by natural minerals such as Zinc and Titanium, act like mirrors – bouncing the sun’s rays back from their surface so they don’t penetrate the skin. Conversely, chemical particles react chemically with the radiation, absorbing it and releasing it as heat. These chemicals include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octyl methoxycinnamate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. There are serious toxicity concerns about most of these chemicals, but especially oxybenzone. According to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) excellent 2020 report on sunscreens many of these chemicals have inadequate data to be considered as safe by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They disrupt hormones which reeks havoc on fertility, reproduction and health, have other toxic effects and are found in the bloodstream soon after, and weeks after, applying them to the skin in levels multiple times their safe cut-off limit. They have also been found in breast milk (see the EWG’s summary of effects).

On the other hand, the barrier sunscreens zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are general recognised as safe by the FDA, they do not penetrate the skin nor have any evidence of hormonal disruption. They have come a long way from the old zinc pastes that were thick and difficult to spread as they are now made in nano-particle size and are much more spreadable and user friendly for use on the whole body. It’s worth noting that because these mineral sunscreens are now produced in nano-particle size, there are some questions regarding whether they are absorbed into the bloodstream. However, a number of studies have shown this is not the case. There are some risks though: because of their tiny size, they could potentially damage the lungs if large amounts of the particles were inhaled or the gastrointestinal system if swallowed – so they should not be used in spray or dry powder form and probably not on lips.

Sun Protection Factor (SPF) refers to the strength of the blocking action by representing the amount of time that burning is prevented. For example, SPF30 = 30 times longer than no sunscreen at all and with SPF50 reddening takes 50 times longer than no sunscreen. According to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the government body which regulates therapeutic sunscreens in Australia, SPF50+ and SPF30 sunscreens offer the same UVB protection – the difference is in SPF50 sunscreens’ extra UVA protection. UVA is believed to be the main culprit for long-term sun damage, and SPF50 sunscreens offer a slightly greater amount of UVA protection.

These are the reasons we recommend you choose a barrier, mineral based cream with an SPF of at least 30+ and apply every two hours or after swimming & exercising. Remember to use broad-spectrum sunscreens as they block both UVA and UVB. Always use shade, sunnies, hats and clothing as a first line of defence. We have a range of barrier type sunscreen products at our Mullumbimby and Brunswick Heads shops. The products we have selected are environmentally friendly sunscreens. This is important as some of the chemicals in sunscreens that are harmful for the body are also harmful for our planet, in particular for our ocean and coral reefs.

A brief mention of nutritional aspects…

Vitamin D is formed by the action of sunlight on cholesterol in the skin, which then gets transformed by the liver and kidneys into its active state. This is blocked by sunscreen and by lack of sun exposure. Vitamin D is critical to health – it enters cells and switches on over 900 genes! Thereby it regulates bone metabolism, stops tumor formation, regulates inflammation and maintains nerve synapses in the brain. Sun exposure is our main source of Vitamin D and it is a very common deficiency in society. People who avoid the sun, or are usually indoors, or always covered with clothes and sunscreen are at risk of deficiency. Food sources are animal based such as liver and cod liver oil, so vegetarians and vegans are more at risk, as are people with darker skin because melanin pigments in the skin blocks the suns action more. Also, antioxidants in the diet protect us from radiation and cancer (and other things) – so always eat a rainbow of coloured fruit and vegetables to help prevent skin cancer too. Avoid processed vegetable and seed oils – the high omega-6 levels they contain get incorporated in cell membranes, including that of the skin and promote inflammation.