Do you know what’s in your sunscreen?
Find out what the difference between chemical sunscreen and mineral sunscreen is and what it means for you
Everyone knows about the damage the sun’s rays can cause to skin. Even if you aren’t prone to sunburn, the ultraviolet (UV) radiation can cause a number of ailments, mainly and most worryingly, malignant melanoma. As more and more people are aware of and concerned with the potential of sun-exposure related cancers, sunscreen use has risen around the world.
As with most cosmetic products, the frequency of use has led some to question whether the chemical composition of sunscreens, which have been developed in the last century or so, are as safe as they are touted to be. And, it seems these fears aren’t entirely off base. Already Hawaii has passed a bill that prohibits the sale of over-the-counter sunscreens containing chemicals that have contributed to to the destruction of the state’s coral reefs and other ocean life.
In addition to the damage they can cause marine life, some sunscreens use ingredients known to be endocrine blockers, which mess with hormone levels in humans, especially the reproductive and thyroid hormones.
Today, we’re looking at the most common active ingredients used in chemical and mineral sunscreens. But, before we look at the difference in the ingredients, let’s first break down what the difference is between mineral and chemical sunscreens.
The difference between chemical sunscreen and mineral sunscreen
Mineral sunscreens: Mineral sunscreen, which you may also see referred to as physical sunscreen, is made from either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Both of these ingredients work by absorbing into the surface layers of the skin and deflecting the sun’s rays. Mineral sunscreens work immediately on application. One downfall is that some mineral sunscreens may leave a white cast, especially on people with darker skin tones.
Chemical sunscreens: Chemical sunscreens, which may also be called synthetic sunscreens, can be made up from more than 30 different chemical ingredients. They work by scattering and deflecting the sun’s harmful rays. The most common chemical sunscreens are oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone. Chemical sunscreens do work immediately on application; however, to be most effective they need to be absorbed by the skin. This ensures that they don’t wipe off on clothing. Two popular choices for chemical sunscreens are oxybenzone (a UBA-UVB filter) and octinoxate (a UVB filter).
Oxybenzone and octinoxate are the two ingredients with the highest levels of toxicity
Every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes their review of and guide to sunscreens. After investigating 650 different kinds of beach and sport sunscreens, they found one ingredient in particular that is very likely to cause hazards to human health and the environment.
Oxybenzone is an allergen and a hormone disruptor that soaks through skin and can be measured in the body of nearly every American today. In laboratory studies, it has been found to act as a weak estrogen hormone; it is also associated with altered birth weight in human studies.
The ingredient with the second-highest toxicity level is octinoxate, which can have hormone-like activity, including in the reproductive system and thyroid, and has caused behavioral alterations in animal studies.
Both of these chemicals can cause skin allergies and reactions as well.
In laboratory experiments, oxybenzone has caused the damage and deformation of coral, coral bleaching, and coral death. It can even disrupt the development of fish and other wildlife. This has led Hawaii to ban the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone, as it has significant and harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment and residing ecosystems.
In humans, it has been detected in nearly every American and it’s also been found in breast milk. As a known endocrine disruptor, exposure has been linked to higher levels of endometriosis in women, poorer sperm quality in men, skin allergies, and cell damage.
Another concern is the simultaneous application of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and insect repellents like DEET, which can enhance the absorption in skin and raise the exposure levels in humans.
Yet despite these facts, oxybenzone remains as one of the top ingredients used in chemical sunscreens. In an audit done by the EWG, they found that two-thirds of non-mineral sunscreens assessed contained the ingredient.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the two ingredients used in mineral sunscreens
Compared to the 30 different ingredients that can make up chemical sunscreens, mineral sunscreens are either made up from either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Of the two, the EWG recommends zinc oxide because it remains stable in the sun and provides the best combination of SPF and protection from UVA rays. Compared to oxybenzone and octinoxate, zinc oxide doesn’t penetrate the skin in large amounts and is not associated with any endocrine or hormonal risks.
However, using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in powdered cosmetics or as a spray sunscreen is not recommended, as inhalation could potentially be dangerous, In the case of inhalation, particles could enter the bloodstream, and additionally, the lungs have a hard time passing any particles.
In regards to the environment, there haven’t been any comprehensive studies yet; however, environmental groups are calling for an assessment of impacts mineral sunscreens may have, especially to marine life and corals. If studies are completed and environmental issues are found, we will update you. But for now, choosing a mineral sunscreen will be much better than choosing a chemical sunscreen with known hazards to corals.
When choosing a mineral sunscreen, look for a cream based product formulated with zinc oxide. Don’t be afraid to slather it on; many people only put a thin layer on which isn’t as effective.
How much sunscreen do you really need?
Just as a quick note, we wanted to mention that SPF higher than 50 is often not necessary. While it may seem like the difference between 50 and 100 SPF is that you get double the protection, in reality there is an increase of protection of only about one percent, or from 98 percent blockage of UVB rays to 99 percent.
Higher SPF sunscreen is also commonly misused by the general population. Because the number is higher, people tend to stay outside longer (without reapplying) because they have a false sense of security.
And lastly, higher SPF sunscreens may contain more concentrated ingredients, therefore potentially causing more health concerns, including tissue damage and hormone disruption.
For best results, choose a sunscreen between SPF 25 and 50.
Now that you know what’s in your sunscreen, you can decide which option is best for your family. Ultimately, some sun protection is better than none. It is necessary to save our skin from burns and damage, but whenever possible, mineral sunscreens are the way to go to avoid harm to the environment and the body.
If you’re looking for a good sunscreen, one of our top sellers is Beauty by Earth Body Sunscreen SPF 25. It is a natural mineral sunscreen that’s free of parabens, oxybenzone, nano-particles, chemical fragrances, phthalates, retinyl palmitate, and PABA.