These last few years have brought much needed awareness to what I call the sunscreen dilemma. Having to choose between getting skin cancer or slathering toxic chemicals on our bodies hardly seems logical. With all of the recent activity around sunscreens whether it be Hawaii’s move to ban two common synthetic filters - Oxybenzone and Octocrylene and last summers debacle with benzene, a carcinogenic substance found in a host of popular brands - consumer advocacy and education is on the rise, and with good reason. However, due to slick marketing campaigns and a loose understanding of “clean”, many people are still confused.
Just because a sunscreen is labeled clean, Oxybenzone free, or reef safe, it does not mean it's devoid of other harmful chemicals.
This topic is near and dear to my heart given my family's affinity for all things sun related - surfing, outdoor sports and spending time at the beach. It’s upsetting and absolutely mind boggling that this has been going on, and that the so called “experts” have been recommending for years that we slather these chemicals on - we are just trading one potential problem for another.
We essentially have 3 options:
- Cover up with clothing, hats and shades.
- Use chemical sunscreens that work by penetrating into the skin, absorbing the UV rays, converting them to heat and then releasing them from the body.
- Use a mineral sunscreen (zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide) that works by creating a physical barrier, reflecting UV rays away from the skin.
Let’s break it down one ingredient at a time.
What is it?
Avobenzene is often the main active filter found in chemical sunscreens designed to protect from UVA (aging) and UVB (burning/cancer) rays.
The Good? It is an active, ingredient that is added to formulas to protect you from the sun.
The Bad? This synthetic ingredient breaks down in sunlight after about 30 minutes. When it breaks down, it releases harmful free radicals into the body that can result in accelerated aging, illness and cancer. Is your brain hurting from the absurdity yet?
Manufacturers use other active chemicals to help stabilize the Avobenzene - Homosalate, Octocrylene, Octisalate. These chemicals address the UVB (burning/cancer) rays while they are working to keep Avobenzene from going bonkers.
What is it? According to SafeCosmetics.org, "Homosalate is a potential endocrine disruptor and studies in cells suggest it may impact hormones. In addition to direct health concerns following homosalate exposure, the chemical may also enhance the absorption of pesticides in the body."
The Good? It helps to stabilize the Avobenzene.
The Bad? “A recent study from the European Commission found that homosalate was not safe to use at concentrations up to 10 percent and recommended a maximum concentration of 1.4 percent, because of concerns for potential endocrine disruption (SCCS 2020).” Popular brands from what you would think are reputable companies are using homosalate at 10%!
What is it? AKA: killer of reefs and a known skeletal, endocrine disruptor. Hawaii has outlawed the sale of sunscreens containing this ingredient - kudos! May many more states follow suit. If it’s killing the reefs, what’s it doing in our own bodies?
The Good? It's an effective UV blocker that helps to stabilize the Avobenzene.
The Bad? According to healthywomen.org, “A January 2020 study published in the journal of Environmental Health Perspectives found that oxybenzone damaged DNA in breast cells of mice at super low doses — but only the breast cells with estrogen receptors.Oxybenzone is an xenoestrogen, which are chemicals that mimic the female sex hormone estrogen in the body. This makes the findings particularly notable for women with a history or risk of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.”
What is it? It is an organic compound (organic = synthetic!) used in sunscreens and cosmetics to absorb UVA & UVB rays.
The Good? It helps to stabilize the Avobenzene.
The Bad? - it’s a known hormone disruptor. NewBeauty.com cites a recent study done in “France looking at the conversion of sunscreens to another potential carcinogen called benzophenone that’s well studied. They found that sunscreens that contain octocrylene were shown to have conversion to benzophenone. What we’ve seen in the literature with benzophenone is that it actually affects estrogen levels, and for young adults, it could potentially affect at this early stage of puberty and impact longer term reproductive capabilities.”
According to CosmeticBusiness.com “Scientists have called on the US’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pull certain sunscreens from the market following the discovery of a possible carcinogen related to the use of octocrylene.”
What is it? Octisalate is an ester that forms via the condensation of a salicylic acid with 2-ethylhexanol.This active, synthetic ingredient boosts the SPF of other actives within a formula. It’s a weak UVB filter and must be used with other ingredients to provide adequate protection.
The Good? It works by absorbing the UV rays and converting them to a less damaging form of energy; heat. This ingredient also helps to boost water resistance and an added bonus is that it acts as a skin smoothing and softening agent.
The Bad? It can undergo some degradation in sunlight. The best advice here is to re-apply your sunscreen frequently (after swimming and / or 2 hours in the sun). This ingredient is the best of the lot discussed in this article.
What is it? Octinoxate is a type of chemical known as a cinnamate ester. A synthetic ingredient that helps to shield the skin from harmful UVB rays. It can be found in both cosmetic products and sunscreens. Companies first began using this ingredient in the 1950’s to protect from UVB rays. Manufacturers typically combine the octinoxate with other ingredients that prevent the skin from absorbing it. This should minimizes the risk of octinoxate affecting someone’s health. However, the skin may still absorb a small amount
The Good? It protects from UVB rays, and penetrates the skin less than some of the other actives mentioned above.
The Bad? Scientists are unsure if this ingredient is directly toxic to humans. However, they do know that it is harmful to marine environments and that water treatment plants have difficulty in removing chemical sunscreens from the water. Therefore it flows easily into rivers and oceans. It has been shown to be harm coral reefs leading to coral bleaching and adverse effects on reef reproduction.
What is it and how can I tell if it's in the products I use?
What is Thanaka?
A nutrient dense tree bark from Myanmar that is full of Vitamin E and has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-acne and anti-aging properties -- all in one. We sourced this amazing ingredient directly from its homeland where the locals grind up the bark and mix it with water to form a paste. It's used as natural sun protection (similar to the way we use zinc oxide) and as a means of self-expression. It's also used to ease the appearance and blocker for the development of melasma and sunspots - and as an important step in the beauty routine of the Myanmar women. At Meadow & Bark, we use it to boost the efficacy of the zinc while cutting down on the white pasty look that is commonly found in mineral sunscreens.