The skin is our body's largest organ and sunscreen is one of the few skincare products that we apply to almost every inch of our bodies; from our scalps down to the tops of feet!
But how many people actually know what sunscreen is and how it works? While sunscreen serves a very intentional purpose - to reduce the risk of sunburns and sun damage - many of the active and inactive ingredients used in sunscreen carry a great deal of potential risk for both our health and the environment.
So before you buy any sunscreen this summer please take the time to learn how sunscreen works, the ingredients to look out for, and why sunscreen should be used more cautiously and mindfully for the sake of the marine environment and the health of our planet!
Sunscreen is a product that adheres to the skin to protect it from UV radiation caused by exposure to the sun.
There are three types of UV radiation, UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC is absorbed in the stratosphere but UVA and UVB penetrate the skin. UVA and UVB have different wavelengths and penetrate into different depths of the skin tissues:
1. UVA - has a longer wavelength than UVB. It penetrates much deeper into the skin's tissues and is stronger than UVB. It can penetrate glass, clouds, and is consistent throughout the time of day and year. It wasn't until the 1970s scientists began to research the connection between prolonged UVA exposure and the rising rate of Skin Cancer in North America.
2. UVB - has a shorter wavelength than UVA. It penetrates the skin's outermost layer and is an essential piece of vitamin D synthesis in the body. While Vitamin D is an important component of human health, too much UVB exposure can lead to sunburns. Skin damage caused by sunburns can increase one's risk of skin cancer.
SPF: Sun Protecting Factor is the multiplied length of time you have before you burn compared to if you didn't have any sunscreen on at all. For example: If you normally burn in 10 minutes and you use an SPF 8, you should have 8 x 10 minutes before you burn using the sunscreen... 80 minutes.
SPF is not proportional: SPF 30 only blocks 2% more UVB than SPF 15. This means that most sunblocks are screening the same volume of radiation and the SPF value is mostly related to prolonging your length of time in the sun.
High SPF is misleading: SPF 45+ is actually illegal to sell in some countries because it is misleading. It is suggesting you will have 450 minutes of sun protection. This is misleading because it is more likely you will have to reapply your sunscreen before this time has elapsed due to sweating, swimming, changing, etc...
Look for UVA and UVB protection or Broad Spectrum: SPF is usually referring to UVB protection only. As we mentioned above it is about prolonging the time you can spend in the sun before getting burned. If you want to make sure you are being protected from UVA and UVB it is essential to look for those terms on the label.
Do not choose high SPF aerosols: SPF is tested in a laboratory based on coverage. Aerosols do not provide the same coverage on the skin as a lotion and so while it may say SPF 50 a quick spray on the arms may be closer to an SPF 4. Additionally, you don't want to be inhaling sunscreen ingredients. Your lungs are very sensitive skin tissues and coating them with sunscreen should be avoided.
Active ingredients that provide sun protection come in two categories: Mineral/physical and chemical filters.
These two minerals are FDA approved ingredients that do not pass through your skin's membrane into your skin's living tissues, and instead, sit on top and reflect UVA & UVB radiation.
Common Active ingredients: Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. We use non-nano zinc oxide in our Summer Zinc Cream 20%.
These ingredients are chemicals made in a lab that absorb into your skin to absorb UV radiation. They are highly volatile and easily penetrate through the skin's membrane.
Chemical filters are the most common active ingredient used in commercial sunscreens because they are more appealing and convenient. They absorb quickly and can last longer on the skin. However, some of these ingredients are now being tested as endocrine disrupters, carcinogens, and as skin irritants.
The other issue is these ingredients are designed to penetrate the skin's membrane and as a result, the other inactive ingredients in the sunscreens and skincare products we used are being absorbed more readily into the body. Many sunscreen chemicals can be measured in blood, breast milk, and urine samples.
Common Active Ingredients: Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate, and Octinoxate.
As we listed above, Oxybenzone and Octinoxate are two commonly found ingredients in many popular sunscreen brands.
Recently, scientists have begun to research the side effects and health consequences from prolonged usage of sunscreens containing these ingredients. Laboratory studies indicate that some chemical UV filters may mimic hormones. Additionally, more and more physicians are reporting sunscreen-related skin allergies.
The EWG has reviewed the existing data about human exposure and toxicity for the nine most commonly used sunscreen chemicals. The most worrisome is oxybenzone, which was added to nearly 65 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens in EWG’s 2018 sunscreen database. Oxybenzone can cause allergic skin reactions (Rodriguez 2006); and in laboratory studies, it mimics a weak estrogen and has potent anti-androgenic effects (Krause 2012, Ghazipura 2017).
Three other studies reported statistically significant associations between oxybenzone exposure during pregnancy and birth outcomes. One reported shorter pregnancies in women gestating male babies, two reported higher birth weights in baby boys, and one found lower birth weights in daughters (Ghazipura 2017).In a recent evaluation of CDC-collected exposure data for American children, researchers found that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone measurements had significantly lower total testosterone levels (Scinicariello 2016)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely detects oxybenzone in more than 96 percent of the American population.
Packaging & Waste
Many popular sunscreens come packaged in single-use plastics or aerosol cans that are difficult to recycle or can end up in landfills. That is why at Miiko Skin Co, our Summer Zinc Cream comes packaged in a glass container that is leak proof; can be returned to us at HQ for sanitation and upcycling, or can be reused by you at home!
Impact of Ingredients on Marine Life
Did you know Hawaii has banned Oxybenzone and Octinoxate by 2021? It is because of the negative impact researchers found these ingredients to be having on the coral reefs.
When sunscreen is washed off of the body and deposited into the water, it can cause bleaching, deformities and DNA damage to the coral reefs for years to come. In fact, Oxybenzone has a half-life of 2.4 years in seawater. Closer to home, it was discovered in 2018 that sunscreen ingredients may be contributing to the pollution of our beloved Cowichan River on Vancouver Island.
We know that sun protection is an important, yet very complex conversation in the skincare world. We hope that this blog has provided a deeper look at the issues surround sunscreens, and helped educate you on your safety for this upcoming summer season!
Miiko Tip: Beginning in January 2021, Hawaii will ban the sale and distribution of any sunscreen containing these two ingredients (ECO WIN!). Planning a trip there? Be sure to pack your Summer Zinc Cream 20%!