Just Say No {to Chemical Sunscreens}

It’s been two years since I wrote this post about the potential dangers of chemical sunscreens so I decided it was time for a reprise. The sad thing is, we all thought we were doing the right thing by slathering our kids with sunscreen every day, but it turns out, we could be causing far more harm than the sun that we’ve been taught to fear.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not cavalier about the sun. There is melanoma on both sides of my family so I take this issue very seriously. But it seems as if not all sunscreens are created equal. In a recent post, Katie explains very succinctly in this post how chemical sunscreens can react with the sun to possibly increase the risk of certain cancers. (When I say “chemical sunscreens” I am talking about most of what you find on the shelves at your typical drugstore. The alternative are mineral sunscreens, made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which do not penetrate the surface of the skin; however “they say” that it is important to choose those that do not use nano-particles.) {source}

I know. Why does everything have to be so complicated??

My current fave is Eco-logical. It scores a 1 (least toxic) by the EWG (Best Sport and Beach Sunscreens) and it goes on pretty smoothly. We also use Badger SPF 30 since I have some left from last year.

So with that preamble out of the way, here is the post as originally posted on July 11, 2011:

Last weekend as I was sitting by the pool at the Hyatt, the lady next to me started spraying a can of aerosol sunscreen all over herself, and me in the process. Because I have no unspoken thoughts, I grabbed my phone and tweeted something to the tune of, “Gawsh people. If you must spray yourself with chemical sun screen, can you at least try not to pollute the rest of us?”

That comment created quite a response in my Twitter stream, and I realized that most people just don’t know how harmful that stuff is. And who am I to judge? Just two summers ago, I was spraying that crap all over myself and everyone within a 50-ft radius too.

I’ve written about this before, although I didn’t really get into all the various aspects of the issue because it’s complex. But after the conversation on Twitter last week, I was prepared to come back and do some homework and write a post. Fortunately before I had the chance, Mandie did it for me. You must read Balancing the Risks of Sunscreen and Skin Cancer at Life Your Way. It is by far the most succinct and thorough post I have read on the topic of sunscreens/sunblocks/skin cancer.

I love how she starts out the article by saying that she could never buy into the hype that something as beautiful and necessary to life on earth as the sun could be inherently bad for us. I have always said that too! I love the sun. I love how it warms my skin and makes everything bright and happy. I couldn’t believe it was all bad, all the time, and I’ve never been one to slather myself from head to toe with sunscreen before I dare to venture outdoors.

Nowadays we know that the sun provides essential nutrients that strengthen our immune systems. We also know that without adequate sunlight, people often get depressed and end up with seasonal affective disorder. Um, have you talked to me long about February or March? I’m certifiable. We NEED sunlight.

We are also learning that there are potential dangers to using chemical-based sunscreens — like, you know, cancer. The thing that I find most disturbing about chemical-based sunscreens is that if you don’t reapply (and I have never been very good about reapplying throughout the day b/c we didn’t seem to need it to prevent burning), they can actually interact with sunshine and for a nice cancer cocktail of free radicals and oxidation. Nice, huh?

Fortunately there are better options, namely mineral based sunblocks that use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as their primary active ingredients.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me what brands we use. I prefer to use nothing, but I’m not one to keep my kids inside during the mid-day hours, and let’s face it. We are pasty. So we do use sunblock more than I’d like. Mandie likes California Baby brand sunblock, and my doctor recommends the Badger brand. I have both and use them interchangeably. Cali Baby uses titanium dioxide, and Badger uses zinc oxide, which technically is supposed to be a little bit safer. Zinc is even safe for babies and is often used in diaper rash creams.

Last year Katie tested 28 mineral based sunblocks, and you can check out her article for more information. By the way, she makes a great point in her post about the word “natural” when associated with skincare products. Plenty of “natural” things are hazardous to our health. I try not to use that word although it’s tempting to fall into the habit. And don’t be deceived by products with an “all natural” label on the packaging — there are no official regulations for that term, neither with food or skincare products. In fact, usually it’s a big huge red flag, in my book. If it says “all natural” then most likely it has something in it that I don’t want.

I like to check out my products on the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database put out by the Environmental Working Group, which is supposedly a non-profit consumer advocacy organization. This is the same group that puts out the Dirty Dozen each year. Their 2011 Sunscreen Guide is a great resource, but again, not all products with a good rating are free of every potentially harmful ingredient. Some of their products rated a 2 contain parabens, so as always, read your labels.

One final note — I have noticed that I have to be diligent about re-applying mineral sunblocks when we’re going to be in the sun all day (like at the pool last week.) Because they don’t sink into the skin, when they wash off, they are no longer effective. I have to be more careful to use them than I did with the chemical ones.

Also, they do go on a bit thicker than the stuff you’re used to, and I’ll warn you — they aren’t cheap. It seems like nothing that’s good for you is. Okay, that was three final notes. So sue  me.

In the end, nothing’s perfect, I guess. For now, we allow ourselves 10-15 minutes of sun exposure and then cover up with the mineral sunblocks or hide out in the shade. If you must be out all day without protective clothing, go for the mineral based sunblocks and rest easy knowing that you’ve done one more thing to reduce the chemical load on your family.