It's funny how things can go full circle. I remember when I was growing up, zinc cream was often used to protect our skin from the sun's damaging rays, especially on the face. It was common to see noses covered in white cream at the beach or local swimming pool or on the TV when watching the cricket - lots of white triangles on the faces of the players. It was popular because that stuff was like an impenetrable barrier.
But then people became self-conscious about how they looked and so sunscreen manufacturers focused on making products that were invisible. They did this by making sunscreens with chemical UV absorbers instead of physical blockers like zinc oxide. So, instead of creating a physical barrier that reflected or scattered UV rays, these UV absorbers soaked up the harmful UV rays, converting them into a low level of heat that was dissipated along the skin's surface. And you could wear this sunscreen without anyone knowing. So what's wrong with that, you ask?
There are a number of potential problems with UV absorbers. For starters, many people get rashes from sunscreens made with chemical UV absorbers - yours truly included. I used to always get a rash every time I used sunscreen because, yes, like many I opted for the popular commercial brand invisible sunscreens instead of the white and sometimes fluoro coloured zinc sunscreens. I just accepted this as the norm - wear sunscreen, you get a rash.
In addition to skin rashes, chemical UV absorbers like Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Homosalate and Octocrylene, have been linked to endocrine (hormonal) disruption. Avobenzone has also been linked to allergies and breaks down quickly when exposed to UV light and can become even more toxic when exposed to chlorine - go figure!
On top of all of that, there are also concerns that chemicals in sunscreens are damaging reefs, leading to several bans around the world, including Hawaii, Key West in Florida, the Pacific island of Palau and the Caribbean island of Bonaire.
(image source: Canva)
Now this week we have confirmation in the news that, not only do these chemical UV absorbers (with all of their potential to cause health issues) penetrate our skin, but they can be absorbed into the bloodstream after a single application at levels that exceed safety thresholds. This is according to studies by the US Food and Drug Administration's Center for Drug Evaluation. And some of the chemicals evaluated stayed at high levels in the bloodstream weeks after application! Scary thought for anyone, but think of the potential detrimental effects on babies, young children and pregnant women.
As some researchers have said, just because something enters our bloodstream doesn’t necessarily mean it is unsafe. But for chemicals that have had a question mark over their safety for a number of years now, these latest results are definitely of concern. The sun safety message has been getting through (slip, slop, slap and all of that) and more and more people are using sunscreen to protect their skin every day from the effects of sun exposure -as they should. But, clearly, more research is urgently required to determine the safety of these so-called 'UV absorbers', given the levels at which they are entering - and staying - our bloodstream.
But, it's not all 'doom and gloom'. While we wait for the research and government regulatory bodies to catch up on the issue of sunscreen safety, there are many natural sunscreen brands out there making sunscreen products based on good old fashioned physical protection ingredients like zinc oxide. See what I mean about 'full circle'? These products have come a long way since the days of opaque white sunscreen. Some products may impart a bit of a 'white cast' on your skin, others are more or less invisible and some are even tinted to blend in with your skin tone, if you prefer. In addition to the all-important active ingredient, like zinc oxide, brands like Wotnot, UV Natural, Little Urchin and Eco By Sonya usually include a blend of beneficial inactive ingredients. These include moisturising ingredients like Jojoba Oil, Shea Butter and Vitamin E; anti-oxidant ingredients like Green Tea and Rosehip Oil; and ingredients known for their natural sun protection properties like Red Raspberry Seed Oil. But, most importantly, they offer effective broad spectrum sun protection and won’t be sending chemical UV absorbers into your bloodstream.
Disclaimer: The author and Naturally Safe Cosmetics are not health professionals. Any information or advice in this article is of a general nature only and not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. For medical advice regarding your own personal circumstances, we recommend you contact your GP or other healthcare professional.