By Dr. Haley Ferrell
As summer approaches sunscreen advertisements are everywhere, and unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation surrounding sun safety. Common knowledge is to cover yourself in the highest SPF sunscreen possible, from head to toe, before stepping out into the sun. This isn’t necessarily the best approach, and I’d like to offer advice on healthier alternatives.
A higher SPF on your sunscreen bottle does not necessarily mean you are more protected for longer periods in the sun, and there are several reasons for that. When talking about the sun, there are 2 different classes of rays to consider: ultraviolet A and B rays. UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancers, but UVA rays penetrate deeper and aren’t as easily blocked by sunscreens. The SPF rating refers to the ability to block UVB rays, but not UVA rays, which still need to be taken into account. Higher SPF sunscreens require more concentrated chemicals as well, so this comes with a higher health risk.
An important thing to consider when choosing a sunscreen for yourself and your family is the active ingredient list. Active ingredients in sunscreens will either be chemical or mineral filters. Chemical filters are the most common, and usually contain a combination of these ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. The Environmental Working Group has compiled a great chart outlining the properties of each of these FDA approved chemicals, including ability of the chemical to penetrate the skin, amount of hormone disruption possible from the chemical, and skin allergy potential.
Hormone disrupting chemicals are especially important to avoid during pregnancy. These chemicals mimic naturally occurring hormones in the body and can disrupt normal functioning patterns. Research on oxybenzone specifically has shown that this chemical has the potential to be toxic to reproductive systems and can interfere with normal fetal development. Several studies have detected sunscreen chemicals in mothers’ breast milk, indicating the developing fetus and newborn may be exposed to these chemicals, so special care to avoid chemicals on this list should be taken during pregnancy!
A great list of sunscreens deemed safe and effective by the Environmental Working Group can be found here.