With winter finally in the rearview mirror, the sun is calling us to get outside! Longer days, clear skies, and pretty little outfits are all what make the summer great. Unfortunately, it also means the potential for sunburns and dangerous UVA/UVB rays shining down on all of that exposed skin. Whether you’re expecting, have little ones at home, or are just conscious of healthy living choices, it’s time to have a look at what’s in your sunscreen and what you should look for when buying a new one.
The Usual Suspects
Most “mainstream” sunscreens use chemicals that block or absorb ultraviolet light to prevent burns. In the US, the FDA regulates which ingredients can be marketed for sun protection as well as which kinds of claims they can advertise in terms of SPF (Sun Protection Factor) and water resistance. On the surface, this may seem to indicate that anything the FDA has approved for use is perfectly safe. In my practice, I am a very strong advocate for the FDA and their work. Unfortunately, this is not 100% the case regarding sunscreens.
Compounds such as oxybenzone and octinoxate are very commonly used for SPF ratings in many different types of products, from sunscreens to cosmetics and daily moisturizers. Although they are very effective in preventing sunburns and cancer causing UVA/UVB rays, there has been controversy surrounding their safety.
Some animal studies have shown that when rats or mice are given oxybenzone via injection or ingestion, they develop health problems over time such as hormone imbalances and liver damage. Octinoxate has also shown changes in estrogen levels in animals, which may sound scary to any pregnant woman, or those trying to conceive.
What does this mean?
Frankly, we’re not really sure. Since these products are only used on the skin’s surface, it’s hard to say if this information is useful in determining their safety. How much is absorbed through the skin? Does it get into the bloodstream as much as direct injection? There are still many questions! Keep an eye out for these ingredients in your foundation, day creams, and lip balms too!
Also, we’re not mice! Sometimes animal studies do not accurately portray how human bodies would respond. Clearly, the FDA does not think that these tests have shown enough compelling evidence to remove oxybenzone and octinoxate from the market.
There are Better Options!
Interestingly, the “old school” sunblock ingredients are the ones you should look for when choosing any product with SPF. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have shown to be the safest and most effective sunscreens. Pregnant women and children over six months should use products with these active ingredients.
The image of a lifeguard from the 1950s with bright white sunblock on his nose might come to mind. You’re right! That was zinc oxide. The original elemental formula was a white paste that acted as a barrier between your skin and the sun. The good news is that lotions and creams now use either invisible or vanishing zinc that glides on clear.
As always, it’s not just the active ingredients that matter. This is an instance of “you get what you pay for.” A few dollars more is a good investment in your (or your baby’s) health to avoid parabens, alcohol, and synthetic chemical fragrances.
Infants and the Sun
Currently, it is recommended that no infant under 6 months be exposed to direct sunlight. This being said, there are no sunscreen options that are appropriate for this age group. When outside, keep your baby in the shade with light cotton clothes, covering her arms and legs. Hydration is especially important — always make sure that he or she has access to formula or breast milk, and avoid being outside from 10am to 2pm when the sun is the strongest. Need an insect repellant too? Here are some safe options in that department.
To Spray or Not to Spray
It has been my personal beach going experience that spray sunscreens are wasteful. I’m sure we’ve all been next to a family with the can of continuous spray blowing away in the breeze. Not only is this just money in the wind, but it also creates the potential for your sunscreen product to be inhaled. Keep in mind that when the FDA tests for safety, they are looking at “proper use.” None of these items, zinc included, have been tested for repeated inhalation. That should be a very important consideration in your selection process.
Skinny Down the Search
It might seem more convenient initially to use a spray, but I do strongly recommend a traditional lotion or cream sunscreen to prevent breathing in the product. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide win the battle of safety over more common and less expensive sunscreens. Have fun this summer, and know that you made the best choice in sun safety.