There are two main types of sunscreen depending on the UV filter used: mineral (a.k.a most ‘natural’ sunscreen, containing zinc/titanium oxide) or chemical (your typical sunscreen). Certain chemical filters and stabilizers have been detected in human blood, urine, and breast milk, demonstrating systemic absorption, whereas mineral sunscreen
forms a protective barrier that doesn’t penetrate the skin.
It’s still unknown whether chemical filters pose a significant health risk. Oxybenzone or BP-3, for example, is deemed safe by the American Academy of Dermatologists, yet, hormone disruption has been exhibited in animal studies as well as altered birth weight in humans. There are various other chemical filters that have been associated with negative outcomes, like octinoxate, which is also shown to have higher toxicity concerns. Refer to Environmental Working Group (click here), to check out the research references, if interested. They also have a search bar where you can look up the safety rating for different sunscreens based on ingredients.
Alternatively, you can try a mineral sunscreen but beware, you’re left with a white ‘glow’ since it’s not formulated to rub in. However, this was my experience with just one product - you can also get a mineral/chemical filter combination that may reduce this effect.
Lotion vs. Spray
Regardless of sunscreen type, lotions are the way to go. Sprays are more likely to be applied incorrectly and inadequately, providing false security which increases the risk of sun burns. They estimate a can of spray sunscreen contains only 40-60% active ingredients (the rest propellant), hence the recommendation to spray an area 3-4 times. Another issue with sprays is the risk of inhalation, which could act as an allergen and trigger asthma in children. Long term effects of sunscreen deposited in the lungs is totally unknown – so it’s a bit of gamble, in my opinion. Applying generous lotion and re-applying sunscreen after excessive sweating or swimming is critical to adequate sun protection.
Consequence of Sunburns
Now, before you consider tossing your sunscreen in the trash can, it’s very important to remember its protective role. The ozone layer (which minimizes the amount of UV radiation reaching the earth) is slowly being depleted, primarily, by carbon emissions. Thus, the sun is “stronger,” and we’re burning faster with more frequent high UV index days.
There’s no denying that sunscreen protects our skin from UV radiation, thus protection against sun burns and reducing our risk of melanoma - the most invasive type of skin cancer. It’s been estimated that the risk of melanoma doubles if you’ve had more than 5 serious sunburns in your lifetime. This demonstrates that what happens in your childhood and teens has future consequence – protect the skin of your little ones!
So, is sunscreen really that dangerous? Long-term effects on human health is largely unknown and more research is required. But, avoiding sunscreen and getting sun burnt is reckless and dangerous. I find it a tricky balance because I care about what I put on my body and want to minimize chemical exposure, but I’m also really cognoscente of the health risks of burning.
Here’s my strategy that works for me, for my skin type (with no family history of skin cancer):
-I check the UV index on the weather network to determine sun strength
-For brief periods of sun exposure, I don’t typically wear sunscreen unless it’s a high UV index at peak hours (10am-3pm)
-At the cottage (with more skin exposed in a bathing suit) I use a chemical filter sunscreen for convenience of applicaction: 'Ombrelle complete SPF 30' lotion (good price and free of oxybenzone, dyes, and fragrance)
-I use a mineral sunscreen 'Substance SPF 30' lotion for my face and burn-prone areas like chest and shoulders
-I include coverage for cancer-prone areas: ears and lips
-I’ll still wear sunscreen on cloudy cottage days (because UVs pass through clouds)
Is this the gold standard for skin protection? Probably not, but I love the sun and summer activities and it works for me to prevent sun burns and I feel better avoiding particular ingredients, even though the research is new. Develop a strategy that works for you and your skin type! The ewg is a great reference and there are so many sunscreen options on the market.