Toxic Chemicals in Sun Creams

Natural alternatives to prevent skin damage 

At this time of year, hundreds of bottles, sprays and tubes of sun cream take prime position in most personal care shops and supermarkets. Sun cream is considered an essential purchase for those heading away for a break in the sunshine.  What many people aren’t aware of, however, is that most sun creams contain toxic chemicals which can be harmful for health – and the environment.

Learn about the toxic chemicals in sun creams and the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens. Discover some natural alternatives to prevent burning and long-term skin damage.

What is sunscreen and how does it work?

Sunscreen, also known as sun cream or sunblock, is a topical product which is applied to the skin; the aim being to protect it from the sun. It works by absorbing or reflecting ultraviolet rays from the sun, preventing sunburn. There are two types of ultraviolet rays: Ultraviolet A (UVA) which is a long wavelength associated with skin burning; and Ultraviolet B (UVB) which is a shorter wavelength linked to skin ageing. Around 95% of the ultraviolet rays which reach the skin through sunlight are UVA. When choosing a sunscreen, it’s essential it has both UVA and UVB protection as both types of ultraviolet rays are considered harmful for your skin.

Harmful chemicals in sunscreen products

If you look at the back of your sunscreen packaging, you’ll see a long list of ingredients, many of which sound like they are better off in a lab. The reality is, these chemically-complex ingredients have been produced in a lab and they’re highly toxic to the body.

Here are a few sunscreen ingredients you definitely want to avoid:

  • Oxybenzone, also called Benzophenone-3, is a common ingredient in sunscreens due to its efficacy at reducing UV exposure. However, it is considered the most toxic of all sunscreen chemicals. This chemical is able to penetrate the skin and leach into the blood; studies have shown traces of oxybenzone can also be found in breast milk. Oxybenzone has been linked to skin allergies, hormone disruption and lowered birth weight.[1] [2] Oxybenzone is also hazardous to the eco-system and environment as it bleaches and deforms coral and contaminates/kills fish.[3]
  • Octinoxate (Octyl methoxycinnamate) is another common ingredient used in sunscreens as a UV filter. It’s associated with reproductive toxicity, developmental issues and hormone disruption. Octinoxate has also been linked to reducing thyroid hormones in the blood, negatively affecting metabolism.[4]
  • Homosalate is known to disrupt hormones (progesterone and androgens) and increase the production of oestrogen in the body.[5] [6] The reason that homosalate is used in sunscreens is that it has the ability to absorb short-wave UVB rays; these are the rays that can damage the DNA of cells.
  • Octocrylene is another UV filter widely used in sunscreens. It absorbs UVB rays and short UVA rays. The issue is, when exposed to UV light, octocrylene produces free radicals which can cause damage to cells, making them mutate.[1] This chemical is highly allergenic and is able to seep through the skin, accumulating in the body.[2] [3]
  • Fragrances in sunscreens are another concern as they contain a cocktail of toxic chemicals which are harmful for the body and linked to a host of health conditions. Learn why you shouldn’t buy fragranced products.

Avoid sunscreen sprays as, not only do they contain chemicals, there is the added danger that you may also breathe in the toxins, as well as absorb them through the skin. In addition, sprays do not provide adequate protection or coverage as the liquid is very thin and watery.

Always read the labels of sunscreen products to check the ingredient list. Don’t be fooled by misleading statements like “natural” or “organic” as, quite often, these products do contain some chemicals. If you’re in doubt about any of the ingredients, call the brand directly and ask them questions.

What are mineral sunblocks?

Mineral sunblocks, sometimes referred to as mineral sun creams, are types of sunscreen that use certain minerals as active ingredients, instead of toxic chemicals (such as the ones mentioned above). The most common minerals used are zinc oxide and titanium oxide. Where chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the UV rays, mineral sunblocks work by creating a physical barrier between the UV rays and your skin. This is why mineral sunblocks are a thick, white, sticky consistency (sitting on top of the skin) and they are called ‘sunblocks’ rather than sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, are more lotion-like, absorbing into the skin like a moisturiser.

How to protect skin naturally

  • Avoid the sun during peak times of the day, from ten am until four pm, as this is when the sun is strongest. Instead, venture outside in the early morning or late afternoon. Use the shadow rule to determine when you should go out in the sun. If your shadow is shorter than your height, avoid the sun as the UV rays are too strong.[10]
  • Seek out shade wherever possible. Use an umbrella or beach tent when at the park or beach.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and clothing with UV protection, such as a rash guard or rash vest which offer up to UPF 50+. The more coverage your body has from the sun, the less chance you have of burning.
  • Be aware that you can still suffer from sunburn in the water or if it’s cloudy.
  • Protect your eyes with sunglasses that block out both UVA and UVB rays. Opt for sunglasses with a UV rating of 400 plus. Excessive sun exposure can increase your chances of developing eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration.
  • Eat more skin-protecting foods like blueberries, watermelon, carrots, leafy greens and cauliflower. These foods are high in antioxidants, vitamin C and beta-carotene which are essential nutrients for skin health. Watermelon and tomatoes are particularly high in an antioxidant called lycopene which has the potential to act as a natural sunblock.[11] [12]
  • Make your own natural sun cream at home. Even though it sounds complicated, you can easily make a natural sun cream with a few natural ingredients. Some natural carrier oils have a high SPF factor, including carrot seed oil (SPF 38-40), raspberry seed oil (SPF 28-50), wheatgerm oil (SPF 20), avocado oil (SPF 4-15) olive oil (SPF 2-8) and coconut oil (SPF 2-8). You can blend one of the above oils with beeswax and zinc oxide for a more natural offering. It is important to obtain organic produce (or Soil Association certified) for best results and always do a patch test.
  • CNM offers a short course on how to create your own natural skincare and nutrition where you can learn about skin health and nutrition, what chemicals to look out for and how to create a range of natural skincare products.

Be sun safe

Reduce your toxic load and potential long-term health complications by avoiding chemically-derived sunscreens. Instead, make your own natural sun cream at home. Avidly read product labels so you’re aware of what you are putting on your skin. Eat more skin-protecting foods such as watermelon, blueberries and tomatoes, don’t go out in the sun at dangerous times and protect your skin and eyes with appropriate clothing and accessories. A little bit of sun is good to top up vitamin D levels, but excessive sun exposure can lead to cell damage.