I’m a redhead. A ginger. A freckle-covered sunburn waiting to happen. To bathe my skin in sunscreen everyday is my habit and my curse, but every time I read the back of a sunscreen bottle I see more chemical ingredients than there are states in the Union. Could the very thing I use to protect myself from the sun’s radiation be doing more harm than good?
Mounting evidence suggests that run-of-the-mill chemical-based sunscreens cause everything from hormone disruption and free radical transformation in humans to the bleaching of coral reefs.
A study published in February 2016’s edition of Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology states that Oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreen, can start causing adverse effects in coral at just the smallest concentrations. The National Parks Service even issued a bulletin in 2012 urging visitors to the park system’s coral reefs to “Protect Yourself, Protect the Reefs” and avoid wearing chemical sunscreens while swimming in the waters. The Environmental Working Group releases a yearly guide ranking sunscreens based on the health effects of each ingredient. They take seriously the suspected endocrine disruption by oxybenzone and other active ingredients like avobenzone, knocking down in their rankings the products containing those ingredients.
If sun exposure can certainly cause cancer, and sunscreen might knock my hormone levels out of whack, how’s a Ginger supposed to protect herself?
It looks like the magic bullet to safe sun protection could be physical, also known as mineral based, sunscreen.
Physical sunscreens are made of the UV-blocking active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These natural minerals are ground down into a fine powder and mixed into a solution. Physical sunscreens create a physical barrier on the skin’s surface, deflecting the sun away from the skin.
To get a professional’s opinion on the best way to protect my at-risk skin I turned to Julie Maughan, MD of Wasatch Dermatology. Besides being a highly trained medical professional, and Davis County’s first female dermatologist, Dr. Maughan has the fair porcelain skin of someone who takes sun exposure very seriously. Remove a few dozen melanomas a week from patients and you can’t help but avoid the sun, she says.
Dr. Maughan’s sunscreen of choice? Physical sunscreen combined with smart, skin-covering clothing. “I’m a huge fan [of physical sunscreen],” she says. “I can protect myself and minimize my risk.”
Dr. Maughan says the way physical sunscreen deflects UV rays is more naturally broad spectrum than chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens need more active ingredients to achieve broad spectrum UV coverage, contributing to skin irritant reactions like contact dermatitis. But, ultimately, “any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen,” she says.
In the state with the highest rates of skin cancer, how diligently should the average Utahn apply this protective goop? Dr. Maughan suggests that applying sun protectants once in the morning can be sufficient for some people. “For people who work and live indoors, who aren’t outdoor types of people, up to 90% of their sun exposure comes from walking to the car…It doesn’t matter if it’s five-minute or 20-minute increments, it all adds up.” She says. When out in the sun for extended periods of time people should reapply as directed on the bottle, usually every 40 to 80 minutes of direct sun exposure.
This reapplication issue is where physical sunscreens trump chemical once again. Zinc and titanium dioxide don’t degrade as fast as their chemical counterparts when exposed to the sun, staying affective longer.
I’ve turned to the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide in the past to help decide which potions to purchase. It’s a good resource for those wanting to avoid putting chemicals onto and in their bodies. While Dr. Maughan agrees that it is a good place to start, she also recommends the Skin Cancer Foundation’s information and says when choosing a sun screen, look for their Seal of Recommendation on a product.
Acknowledging that there is still debate on whether either type of sun protection is safer than the other, and possible future side effects from all sun protection options aside, Dr. Maughan will continue to slather on the protection. “There may be consequences down the road that I don’t know, but do I want to risk the consequences of what I don’t know in exchange for ones I do?”
As someone who’s a burner—and not the fun, festival-going kind—I’m glad there are options for me out there. Whether science proves or disproves any claims regarding the health effects of common sunscreen ingredients, I will continue my two-pronged approach of physical sunscreen and protective clothing.
Emma Ryder is a writer and artist from Salt Lake who loves the sun but fears its wrath on her tender complexion.