Getting beneath the skin of sunscreen

The average adult has about 3.6 kilograms, or about 2 square metres of skin. It's our largest organ, and one that we should take care of. After all, it regulates your body temperature, as well as acting as a barrier, protecting the body from harmful things in the outside world such as germs and toxins, moisture, the cold and the Sun's rays.

Unlike my lawn, which is just about frazzled, I intend keeping my skin healthy. Every summer, at the first sight of the Sun, I reach for the sunscreen in the bathroom cabinet. Last year's sunscreen, or maybe older. Purchased without a great deal of thought for what's in it, just as long as it's labelled as being high protection strength. Like most of us, I should probably care a whole lot more.

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Yes, sunscreen is expensive. But, doesn't your skin - your first line of defence - deserve to be looked after? That includes thinking about what's in the product that you smear so liberally over your body, not to mention its impact on the environment. It got me thinking...

It's not just me, though. People are looking for safer, non-toxic and preferably plastic-free sunscreens, which is great news. Unfortunately, the selection remains rather limited at the moment (although there are many more options out there compared to a couple of years ago). 

So what’s the issue with conventional, off-the-shelf sunscreens? Where to begin…?

Given that our skin can absorb what we put on it, I'd prefer to put as few ingredients on my skin as possible. I'd also like them to be as organic and safe as possible. Conventional sunscreens can contain a cocktail of toxic, synthetic chemicals that are known hormone disruptors amongst other health risks.

On a bigger scale, it turns out sunscreens are destroying coral reefs, which we are learning are the “rainforests of the oceans”: home to a whole host of plant and animal species, they protect coastlines from erosion and they can be a vital store of carbon.  Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3, BP-3), a chemical found in thousands of conventional sunscreen products, is not only toxic to coral reefs (disrupts coral reproduction, causes coral bleaching, damages coral DNA), but also damaging to algae, sea urchins, fish and marine mammals, causing - amongst other things - hormonal disruption.

Measurements of oxybenzone have been found 12 times higher than levels considered safe for seawater coral reefs in waters around Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands. Consider this: swimmers, scuba divers and snorkelers are releasing between 6,000-14,000 tonnes of sunscreen into coral reef environments each year.

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“It is estimated that 10,000 tons of UV filters are produced annually. On average about 25% of the sunscreen ingredients applied to skin are released in the water over the course of a 20 min submersion." Charlotte Vohtz, Founder of Green People.

So, there's a clear message: conventional sunscreen isn’t great for our health or for the ocean and the life it holds.

But there are better sunscreens out there – ones that use certified organic ingredients without nanoparticles, relying on uncoated zinc oxide as the only sunscreen. Zinc oxide is a mineral that does not absorb into the skin, instead providing a physical barrier that sits on top. This can mean a slightly white film appearing on the skin. I think that's a small price to pay, if it means my health and the environment aren’t at risk.

Then, of course, there's the plastics question. My other criterion in searching for that green sunscreen is that it shouldn't come packed in a plastic bottle or tube. Stainless steel tins or biodegradable cardboard tubes are being used now, and it's possible to purchase such products in the UK.

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Unfortunately, even in the eco-friendly market, not all sunscreens are equal.  Be wary of brands that say they offer “complete protection” without any further detail – this is  to get round marketing regulations.  Instead look for ones that specifically say that they give both UVA and UVB protection.

Also be wary of sunscreens saying they offer protection above SPF 50, as there is no evidence anything above SPF 50 offers increased protection.  This also fools you into thinking you can reapply less – you still have to reapply the cream every couple of hours regardless of the SPF.

So, here are a few brands you might want to look at:

Badger Sunscreen is one of the best eco friendly sunscreens on the market, offering a sun protection factor of 30, and protection from both UVA and UVB rays.  It’s 100% chemical free, contains 87% certified organic ingredients, and is hypoallergenic – making it safe for every member of the family, even little ones. What's more, it’s completely biodegradable and won’t cause any harm to reefs or other aquatic ecosystems.  And for the final thumbs up, it’s not tested on animals, although it’s not vegan (it contains beeswax).

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Jāsön eco-friendly sunscreen offers a hefty SPF45 protection from both UVA and UVB rays, making it great for all of the family.  It’s gentle and non-irritant and rubs in well.  It’s not tested on animals and vegan friendly, but not reef-safe. For a reef-safe product, choose the Jāsön Mineral SPF30 sunblock.

Invisible Zinc SPF 30 Sunscreen is apparently the eco-friendly sunscreen choice of celebrities, if that impresses you. It's a light and non-greasy eco-friendly natural sunscreen offering very high UVA and UVB protection.  Unlike other creams, Invisible Zinc provides a physical (not chemical) barrier between you and the sun using only one active ingredient: Zinc-Oxide.  Zinc Oxide is a mineral reflector found in nature, which creates a reflective barrier on the surface of your skin. As it’s low on ingredients it’s suitable for use on all skin types, and the good news is Invisible Zinc is also vegan friendly, and not tested on animals.

There is a growing market for these products, so be aware that new brands are hitting the market all the time. Take time to look closely at their composition and packaging. Your skin deserves it! 

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