Is Your Sunscreen Friend or Foe?

Everyone loves summer – it's the best Season to spend more time outdoors.

There are lots of fun activities and you may have even noticed you feel a lot happier during the summer than in winter.

Most of the benefits of sun exposure center around vitamin D, but there's more to it than that.

4 Reasons to Bask in the Summer Sun

1. Keeps you cheerful:

women laughing in the sun

Enhances mood and energy through the release of endorphins. Endorphins are the ”feel-good” hormones secreted in the brain.

2. Helps circadian cycle:

Circadian cycle is your body's internal clock. Sunlight helps this biological clock to work smooth and seamless. It keeps you energized during the day and rest at night at about the same time every day. This helps you sleep better and takes care of the sleep-wake cycle.

3. Regulates Melatonin:

Melatonin is a hormone made in the body. It forms in the dark and stops in response to sunlight exposure.

It's the pacesetter, and moderate sunlight exposure helps you make more melatonin. This helps you fall to sleep easier.

Studies also show that melatonin prevents depression, and stops skin damage by UV rays.

4. Promotes healthy body weight:

A recent study shows that moderate sunlight exposure every day helps keep the BMI low.

These are fantastic benefits, yet dermatologists recommend using sunscreen. They suggest limiting sun exposure and protecting from sun's UV rays. All for valid reasons, here's why!

3 Reasons You Need a Sunscreen

1. Reduces premature aging of the skin
2. Lowers the risk of skin cancer caused by overexposure
3. Prevents sun damage to the skin such as wrinkling, discoloration, and pigmentation

Given these reasons, we should be wearing sunscreen all the time. Still, it seems like it becomes much more important once summer is here and we spend more time outside.

wrinkly arm skin

If you’re headed to a beach you may just reach for the first tube of sunscreen you see on the shelf or the one that’s on sale.

That would be a big mistake.

You may think sunscreens are all the same except for the scent or the level of UV protection they provide. That’s not true.

Many of the sunscreen products on the market contain chemicals that can hurt us. To better understand, let’s take a look at how sunscreen works.

How Sunscreens Work

There are two ways that sunscreens can protect us.

The first is by using minerals like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These block the sun and keep it from reaching our skin.

The other is by using chemicals.

There are many different chemicals used in sunscreen formulation. Most of them can cross through your skin and enter the bloodstream which can lead to a cascade of health issues.

Examples include interference with hormonal balance and developmental abnormalities in unborn babies. In children, it can also cause allergic reactions or rashes.

Types of sunscreens

Sunscreens include one of three ingredients – oxybenzone, zinc oxide, or titanium.

woman in bathing suit putting sunscreen on nose and shoulder

Depending on the ingredients and how it filters the UV rays they fall under two categories.

Physical sunscreen and chemical-based sunscreens.

All sunscreens are chemicals, which is why the term ”chemical” sunscreen can be confusing. Yet, this is how the industry classifies the two types of sunscreens.

sunscreen infographic

Physical sunscreens

Physical sunscreens do not indicate things like hats or umbrellas as the term could lead you to believe.

Physical sunscreens are mineral-based ones, which block the UV rays from hitting the skin's surface because they form a physical barrier. This is why they are called ”physical sunscreens”.

Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide are the key ingredients in physical sunscreens. They are mineral-based and are also called mineral or inorganic sunscreens.

These ingredients have physical filters that work by deflecting or blocking the sun's rays.

  • The mineral Titanium Dioxide protects against UV-B rays but not the UV-A rays.
  • Zinc oxide protects against both UV-A and UV-B rays.

These 2 ingredients form a protective shield over the skin. When UV rays hit the skin, this shield bounces them off and slows penetration into the skin.

Seems simple and harmless right?

Chemical-based sunscreens

Sunscreens with chemical filters to shield against sun's UV rays are called chemical sunscreens. They are also called organic sunscreens. They work by absorbing the energy of sun's UV rays. This converts to heat and in the end gets dispersed in the skin.

A list of most common UV filters in sunscreen

Chemical UV filters

Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA): This was the first chemical UV filter used in early formulas. It offers protection from UV-B rays. Newer formulations seldom use this as it may be an irritant for those with sensitive skin.

Homosalate: A common ingredient in sunscreens and an endocrine disruptor. It toys with the action of estrogen, and progesterone. There are concerns it releases harmful by-products as it degrades upon exposure to the sun.

You can find this ingredient listed as Homosalate, Homomenthyl Salicylate, HMS, HS; 3,3,5-trimethyl-cyclohexyl-salicylate.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding this ingredient due to its ability to penetrate into the skin.

Avobenzone: This is used in many sunscreens for to its ability to absorb a wide range of UV rays. This chemical degrades in the presence of sunlight.

Because it releases free radicals it may increase the risk of skin cancer.

Octisalate: Added to sunscreens to help stabilize the Avobenzone in sunscreen formulation. Octisalate is a weak UV rays protector and penetrates the skin.

Octinoxate: According to EWG, Octinoxate is a moderate hazard.

EWG notes it may cause reproductive toxicity and developmental issues in pregnant women. Since it can penetrate the skin with ease it can interfere with hormones.

Studies have shown the presence of this chemical in breast milk of lactating mothers. EWG recommends avoiding this ingredient.

Oxybenzone: It has estrogen-mimicking activity and is linked to endometriosis and higher allergic reactions. It has one of the highest penetration rates in lab studies when compared to other UV filters.

It has a significant impact on both men and women’s fertility.

A recent study conducted by the CDC finds that all but 4% of the population has this in their blood stream. EWG recommends avoiding Oxybenzone.

A Few other Ingredients You Should Avoid

Paraben: Often used as a preservative in sunscreen and other beauty products. Parabens are potent endocrine disruptors. It can cause infertility, obesity, allergies, asthma.

It is also linked to breast cancer and benign tumors of the uterus or digestive tract. If your sunscreen has paraben, it should show on the product label.

Fragrance: Sunscreens often come with artificial fragrances which make the product appealing and tolerable. There are many chemicals used to make the scent.

Manufacturers label them under a common name “Fragrance” “artificial fragrance”.

Studies link them to allergies, birth defects, increased cancer risk and nervous system disorders.

Retinyl Palmitate: Retinyl palmitate is a form of vitamin A. It is an ester of retinol and palmitic acid. Under sunlight, it generates free radicals which can increase cancer risk and genetic mutations.

Studies show using retinyl palmitate products may pose a threat to the developing fetus. Retinyl palmitate causes organ toxicity, changes at the cell level, swelling of the brain. The over generation of free radical compounds leads to cell death and heart diseases.

Methylisothiazolinone: A popular ingredient in recent brands. It has been named “allergen of the year” by a dermatological society.

So, does this mean mineral sunscreens are safe?

Beware, not all mineral-based sunscreens are safe!

Manufacturers also offer nano-sized particles in physical sunscreens for the ease of application. This helps absorb UV rays rather than reflect. These sunscreens have their active mineral-based ingredients reduced to nano-sized particles (15-100 nm).

They are so tiny, they can seep through your skin pores and get into the blood stream, which poses a danger.

Note this does not apply to all mineral sunscreens. Some of them on the market have some dangerous chemicals. Be sure to read the labels and be vigilant of those nanoparticles. That brings us to the next important point, SPF numbers

The issue of exaggerated SPF:

About 1 in 6 sunscreens has exaggerated SPF claims of greater than 50.

This can give a consumer a false sense of protection which may lead to overexposure to sunlight. Be SPF smart don't fall for tall claims.

3 Sunscreen Shopping Rules to Follow

1. Know what the numbers mean: SPF-15 can do the job of SPF-30 or SPF-50.

Here's the data from Skin Cancer Foundation:

♦ SPF 15 block 93 % of UV-B rays

♦ SPF 30 blocks 97 % of UV-B rays

♦ SPF 50 blocks 98 % of UV-B rays

woman in bathing suit putting sunscreen on legs

A golden rule to remember reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours for the most protection.

2. Always choose broad spectrum: A sunscreen that protects you from both UV A and UV B is what you should look for.

3. Choose lotion/rub over sprays: Avoid sunscreen sprays.

  • You are likely to inhale the chemical ingredients while using the spray type.  Titanium dioxide from sprays when inhaled and into your blood could increase cancer risk.

The International Agency for Research on Carcinogen recognizes it as ”possible carcinogen”.

This is a potential threat, especially when inhaled in high doses.

  • It's also easy to miss a spot while using sprays.

For better protection and good coverage use lotions. With lotions or creams, you tend to cover the majority of your skin.

The above facts are real health concerns. They don’t change the fact that we need protection against the sun’s rays.

So, should you avoid the sun altogether to reduce risk, NOT AT ALL!

Like I mentioned earlier, sunlight has other benefits. So get out there and enjoy the sunshine while it is available. Remember to practice sensible sun exposure.

Here are few guidelines for sun exposure

Dr. Holick, the lead researcher of Vitamin D recommends the following:

  • If you turn red after 30 minutes stop staying in the sun to avoid overexposure.
  • Expose your skin for ten to fifteen minutes per day. Follow it up with sunscreen and protective clothing.
  • Expose arms, legs, abdomen, and back. Avoid exposing your face.

Recommendation from The American Cancer Society, “Slip! Slop! Slap!® and Wrap”

A catchphrase that can help you remember some of the key steps you can take to protect yourself from UV rays:

  • Slip on a shirt.
  • Slop on sunscreen.
  • Slap on a hat.
  • Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and skin around them.

Use a smartphone application to show the amount of vitamin D made from sun exposure. D-minder created under the guidance of Dr. Holick is one such free app.

If you plan to be outdoors, you may want to check the UV Index for your area. The UV Index usually appears in the local newspaper, TV, radio, and online forecasts.

Sun Safety in a Nutshell

  • Keep in mind Dr. Holick's suggestion of ONLY ten to fifteen minutes per day depending on your skin type.
  • The best way to protect yourself is to use a sunscreen with safe ingredients.
  • Cover up by wearing a hat or long sleeves and stay away from sunscreens with chemicals. Look for those that use only natural minerals, or better yet make your own! It is low SPF so you will need to put on more pretty often, but it is safe and natural.

Here's a recipe for a natural, safe sunscreen:

make your own sunscreen recipe

Yours in health and happiness,


P.S. Share this article with a friend who loves sunny outdoors and show that you care! I'd love to hear from you in the comments below too!