What Sunscreen Are You Using?

Ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure is highest in the next couple of spring and summer months. I spend way too much time every year trying to decipher which sunscreen will do the job and not poison my body through its largest organ, skin. What will you use to protect yourself from the sun’s radiation? Is it damaging the environment or you?

UVA and UVB are the two main types of solar radiation that reach land. UVB, the more harmful of the two, causes sunburns and is linked to skin cancers. UV rays are highest between the hours of 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., increase as you get closer to the equator, exposure is greater at higher altitudes, can penetrate cloud cover and can reflect off of many surfaces increasing exposure. It’s virtually impossible to escape, and being exposed on a daily basis can increase wrinkles and your risk for skin cancer. Hence, the need for a daily sunscreen to block the UVA and more harmful UVB rays. But which do you buy?

A popular ingredient in many grocery store sunscreens is oxybenzone. This ingredient is having toxic effects on coral reefs around the world. Oxybenzone causes hormone disruption and DNA damage that leads to the death of the living animal, coral. Oxybenzone was also found to increase the rate of coral bleaching — when algae leaves the coral that normally live symbiotically together due to stress caused by changes in temperature or pH leaving behind white “bleached” coral. Corals react to a small amount of oxybenzone toxicity in the water, the same as a single drop in a large swimming pool.

Oxybenzone is not something you want to lather on your skin, either. According to the Environmental Working Group, oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor — penetrates the skin, enters the blood stream and acts like estrogen in your body.

Another ingredient often found in sunscreens is palm oil. Recently, Leonardo DiCaprio visited Indonesia for a first-hand view of palm oil destruction and posted about it on his social media pages. His visit has sparked outrage from Indonesian officials who may blacklist him from entering the country again. Part of his comment on a photo read, “As the forest of the Indonesian Leuser Ecosystem continues to be cleared to meet demand for palm oil, the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan is being pushed to the brink of extinction.” And yet, I could not find a single sunscreen at the local health food store without palm oil in it.

What am I supposed to use? There are a number of websites boasting the natural SPF qualities of coconut oil but the science isn’t there yet. One recent study found that coconut oil may have absorbed some of the UVB rays, which would lead to skin protection, but there is not enough data to support the claims. You can also make your own sunscreen using zinc oxide, a powdered mineral that sits on top of skin to block the sun’s rays and mix with coconut oil for a blend. Zinc oxide doesn’t contain endocrine disruptors and has shown no evidence of hormone disruption.

The Environmental Working Group found that “approximately 75 percent of commercial sunscreens contain toxic chemicals that are linked to cancer and disrupt hormones.” They offer a few tips for buying sunscreens that are lower risk for you and the environment. They are: no spray sunscreens, no high SPFs (higher than 50 doesn’t mean less risk for you; it can fool you into a false sense of security), no oxybenzone, no palm oil (labeled as retinol palmitate and other derivatives), no combined sunscreens and insect repellent, and no tanning oils. On their website EWG.org they offer a variety of product suggestions — but be careful and read the labels as several contained palm oil.

With all of that said, the best protection from the sun is to use clothing or another barrier. Luckily, my sister-in-law bought me a huge bright pink visor that I’m sure has become the talk of the neighborhood as I don’t leave for a run without it. At least my face is protected!

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