With summer holidays well on their way, many of us are enjoying being out in the sun. But as we all know; the warm and pleasant sun rays can also cause us harm if we are not careful.
The go-to advice to avoid this has long been to wear sunscreen. Sunscreen does indeed protect us from harmful UV radiation but many of the chemicals that are frequently used in sunscreens are, unfortunately, harmful themselves – either to our own health or to the environment.
So, how do we best protect ourselves against the sun’s UV radiation while, at the same time, considering the chemical ingredients present in sunscreens?
Sunscreens are usually divided into two categories: those using chemical filters and those using physical filters (also known as mineral filters). Chemical filters use chemicals to absorb UV rays, while physical filters deflect the rays from our skin.
“Many of the chemicals that are frequently used in sunscreens are, unfortunately, harmful”
Physical filters are comprised of zinc and titanium dioxide particles, which are naturally occurring minerals and therefore often viewed as being a safer choice. Furthermore, sunscreens with physical filters do not penetrate the skin to the same extent as the ones using chemical filters do.
However, studies show that titanium dioxide, through inhalation, can cause cancer, which becomes especially problematic in sunscreen sold as sprays. Moreover, zinc dioxide is extremely harmful to the aquatic environment.
The fact that miniscule nano particles are used in these sunscreens adds to the concern. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are even more harmful in the form of nano particles since it makes it easier for them to penetrate our skin and also the environment. The craziest part of this is that nano particles are not even needed. They are only used in sunscreens because they do not colour the skin as white as physical filters otherwise tend to do.
“The craziest part is that nano particles are not even needed in sunscreen”
Unfortunately, sunscreens with chemical filters are even worse than those with physical filters when it comes to chemical ingredients. Many of them contain well-known hazardous chemicals, some of which are hormone-disrupting while others have a huge negative impact on, for example, coral reefs.
For the average consumer, this can of course seem overwhelming. No matter what you choose – it’s bad. There are, however, some ways to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays without exposing yourself to toxic chemicals:
Use sunscreen as seldomly as possible. Instead, stay in the shade and protect your skin with clothing.
When necessary, use sunscreen from trusted eco-labels (such as the Nordic Swan and EU Ecolabel, the EU-flower). But keep in mind that some products may have labels that look eco-friendly even though the product might not be.
By law, sunscreens containing nano particles need to be labelled. If you are to use a sunscreen containing titanium dioxide, make sure it’s not a spray and do not apply it on your lips.
Do not apply sunscreen right before you go swimming. Sunscreens need some time to penetrate the skin, and many ingredients can be harmful to aquatic life.
Choose products that are free from added perfume to reduce the amount of hazardous chemicals that you’re exposed to.
Dr. Anna Lennquist
Senior Toxicologist at ChemSec