Q Are sunscreen chemicals doing us more harm than a little sun exposure?
A Come summer, light-deprived Canadians slap on the solar armour like it's going out of style. Though I have to admit I suck at the sunscreen thing. I take any shameless opportunity to connect with my Greek ancestry and get brown. (And don't write in to tell me I'll regret it when I'm 50. I've heard it all before.)
But I digress. How bad are those chemicals we smear on our skin all summer, and sometimes all year long? Enough to make you red in the face, especially when you find out how poorly they actually do their job.
Recent reports say you need to let a little sunshine in to get a good dose of vitamin D, but after you've allowed yourself your 10 minutes twice a week if you're pale or six times that if you're a person of colour, then what? The reigning kings of product research at New York-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) have just investigated nearly 800 name-brand sunscreens and concluded that only 16 per cent are both safe and effective.
Not only do a good chunk not block skin-damaging, wrinkle-inducing, cancer-causing UVA rays, but their chemical contents can be pretty frightening. Oxybenzone (found in over 400 products), for instance, is a weak hormone disruptor absorbed by the skin that's found in the urine of 95 per cent of six-to-eight-year-old girls tested, as well as in waterways, soil and air. Scientists at University of California, Riverside recently reported that two-thirds of the male turbot and sole gathered near a sewage pipe a few kilometres off Huntington Beach had ovaries growing. The only estrogenic chem they found in the gender-bending fish was, you guessed it, oxybenzone.
Wouldn't you know it, the list of freaky ingredients goes on: estrogenic octinoxate, the weak hormone disruptor homosalate and the possible carcinogen enzulizole that can produce free radicals when exposed to sun.
Speaking of which, you'd think stability in sunlight would be a main criterion when making this stuff, but nope. EWG says a full 54 per cent of the products they cross-checked against 400 peer-reviewed studies and toxicity databases are unstable either on their own or when combined with other ingredients. Gotta wonder whether they truly offer the kind of "all-day" protection many advertise. One study even indicated that you should reapply every half-hour!
The good news is that EWG decodes the good from the crappy in its online database (www.cosmeticsdatabase. com). Your safest bets are products whose active ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. They're stable in the sun and provide good UVA and UVB protection.
The problem is that zinc mines and titanium dioxide production are both pretty polluting. As well, sunscreens sometimes use nano-versions of the ingredients (with freakishly minuscule particles). I've written before about the potential for nano-particles to mess with the environment and seep past skin cells into the bloodstream. However, 15 studies found that nano-particle titanium dioxide doesn't penetrate unbroken skin. What about nano-particle sunscreens on damaged skin? No one's looked into that one, but I'd keep these away from cuts and scrapes.
Regardless, both The Green Guide's sunscreen report (www.thegreenguide. com) and EWG give these two ingredients their vote of confidence. According to EWG, "Sunscreens without zinc and titanium could accelerate by an average of 20 per cent the skin damage, premature aging, wrinkling and UV-induced immune system damage linked to UVA exposure." No good.
Don't assume health store sunscreens are always good picks. For one, many contain a PABA-derivative called padimate O (aka PABA ester). It's safer than its older brother but can release free radicals and has been tied to DNA damage in some studies. Plus, some are allergic to it.
Overall, the only natural products commonly available in Canadian health stores that make the cut for having the fewest risky ingredients and effectively blocking UVA and UVB rays are Lavera Sun Block SPF 40 Neutral, Jason's Sunbrellas SPF 30+ mineral- based sunblock, Aubrey Organics Green Tea Sunblock for Children and all California Baby sunblocks. But don't take my word for it - search the database for yourself at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com.
If you want to be really responsible, get yourself some UV-resistant clothing. Patagonia's Sol Patrol line is so tightly woven it has a UV protection factor of 40 (www.patagonia.com).
You can even fake that healthy glow with largely natural self-tanners from Lavera or Nature's Gate Organics Happy Glow Lucky bronzing moisturizer, both available at any health store with a good beauty care aisle.
Warning: never combine sunblock with DEET. Sunscreen allows your body to absorb three times as much of the bug-repelling neurotoxin into your bloodstream.
BEST NATURAL PICKS
Lavera Sun Block SPF 40 Neutral
Jason?s Sunbrellas SPF 30+
Aubrey Organics Green Tea Sunblock for Children
California Baby sunblocks