Protecting our skin from the damaging effects of the sun is important all year round but, during the warmer months of the year, when we tend to spend more time outdoors, we need to be particularly vigilant in focusing our attention on this vital aspect of self care.
You’re probably aware that the sun emits both UVA and UVB rays. So, what’s the difference?
- UVA rays have the lowest energy level and make up around 95% of the sun’s rays to reach the ground. They:
- have a longer wavelength and are more penetrating than UVB rays and can affect cells deeper in the skin
- can cause immediate tanning and burning in the short term, but are more generally associated with long-term effects like premature ageing, wrinkles and some skin cancers
- can cause indirect damage to DNA
- can penetrate windows and clouds
- UVB rays have a ‘medium’ energy level and make up around 5% of the sun’s rays to reach the Earth. They:
- have a shorter wavelength and affect the top layer of the skin
- can cause delayed tanning, sunburn and blistering in the short term but, in the long-term, UVB rays are associated with skin cancer
- can cause direct damage to DNA
- don’t penetrate windows and are more likely to be filtered by clouds
- (on a side note, did you know there are 3 types of UV rays? Have your heard of UVC rays? No? UVC rays have the highest energy level and the shortest wavelength of the three types of UV rays. UVC rays can cause severe damage to eyes and skin including redness, ulcers, lesions and severe burns. Fortunately, in terms of the sun’s rays, UVC is completely filtered out by the atmosphere (ozone layer) and, therefore, does not reach our skin. UVC rays are present, however, in man-made items like mercury lamps, bacteria-killing light bulbs and welding torches.
(image source: Canva)
One of our best weapons in the fight against sun damage is the use of sunscreen. All sunscreens have two main components: the active ingredient/s and the emulsion (the rest of the formulation). It is the active ingredient which has the job of protecting the skin from UVA and UVB rays.
Chemical sunscreens v physical sunscreens
There are two main types of sunscreen: chemical and physical.
The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens are known as UV absorbers which work by absorbing UV radiation and converting it into a low level of heat (so low most people don’t even notice it, although some do, apparently) which is released from the body preventing sunburn. Although UV absorbers can be effective in preventing sunburn, they can come with their own potential risks. A few examples of UV absorbers and concerns associated with them include:
- Avobenzone – known to become unstable when exposed to light and can lose 50-90% of its filtering abilities within an hour of light exposure. For this reason, it is often combined with other chemicals to stabilise it. Although it is approved for use in the US, Europe and Australia, the US has limited Avobenzone's concentration to 3% in sunscreen formulations and its use is restricted in Japan.
- Octinoxate – often combined with Avobenzone to provide effective broad-spectrum protection. It is approved in Europe, Japan and Australia plus certain states in the US, however, it has been banned by Hawaii, Key West in Florida and the island nation of Palau. This is mainly because it is believed to contribute to coral bleaching and may also potentially affect fish. There is also evidence of it being a human endocrine disruptor.
- Oxybenzone – one of the most popular chemical sunscreen ingredients, it is approved in the US (except Hawaii – based on findings of coral bleaching and poisoning), Australia and Europe. It is restricted in Japan. Apart from reef damage, it is believed to also affect fish. Studies indicate it is a photoallergen, meaning it causes allergic contact dermatitis which is activated by light and results in a rash or other systemic effects on subsequent exposure. Products with Oxybenzone are not recommended for sensitive skin types.
Physical sunscreens contain active ingredients known as UV reflectors which work by absorbing and scattering UV radiation, basically deflecting the sun’s UV rays. They protect the skin by creating a physical barrier. Examples of UV reflectors include:
- Zinc Oxide – a GRASE (Generally Regarded as Safe and Effective) ingredient and allowed in concentrations up to 25%. There’s no evidence of skin penetration and it is considered harmless unless swallowed or inhaled.
- Titanium Dioxide – also a GRASE ingredient although it should be avoided in spray form due to inhalation risk.
(image credit: Naturally Safe Cosmetics)
Naturally Safe Cosmetics chooses to sell only physical sunscreens like Wotnot 30 SPF Natural Sunscreen and Natural Instinct Invisible Natural Sunscreen SPF30. Most of our sunscreens are suitable for both adults and kids, although some are specifically created for children and babies, like Simple As That Natural Sunscreen for Children SPF30. You can view the whole range of natural physical sunscreens here.
The active ingredients in sunscreens are carried in an emulsion - the balance of the combined ingredients in the sunscreen formula which can take the form of a lotion, milk, cream, oil, foam or gel. The emulsion includes other ingredients necessary to preserve the sunscreen, to help with water resistance and to create the overall texture of the product. (By the way, by law, all sunscreens sold in Australia must have an expiry date printed on them.)
What about Vitamin D?
According to cancer.org.au, several studies have shown that sunscreen use has minimal impact on Vitamin D levels over time.
Other sun protection options
Of course, sun protection is not just about sunscreen. Many of you will be familiar with the Cancer Council’s Slip, Slop, Slap slogan which began decades ago and is credited with raising awareness of the importance of sun protection. Slip on protective clothing, Slop on some sunscreen and Slap on a hat. In 2007, the slogan was extended to include Seek and Slide, that is, Seek shelter and Slide on a pair of sunglasses.
What about daily sun protection options?
One of the best skin protection and anti-ageing habits you can get into is the daily use of sunscreen or a facial moisturiser with SPF. Even if you’re not planning to spend much time in the sun, you’d be surprised how much ‘incidental’ sun exposure you might encounter during a single day. Walking to catch the bus or train, hanging the washing outside, chatting with your neighbour over the fence, having a coffee on your balcony – even working indoors near a window or driving in your car (remember when we said above that UVA rays can penetrate windows?) All of this incidental exposure can add up over time, so it makes sense to protect your face, neck and even the backs of your hands, at the very minimum, on a day-to-day basis. We love the Clemence Organics Protect + Clarify Daily Face Lotion which not only nurtures your skin with native botanical ingredients, but also offers a layer of sun protection with the inclusion of Zinc Oxide.
What about makeup?
The great thing about natural mineral makeup, apart from evening out your skin tone and providing a flawless look to your complexion, is that it has its own sunscreen, thanks to the inclusion of Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide. So, if you choose to wear makeup, mineral makeup can provide another layer of sun protection for your face and neck and anywhere else you choose to apply it. Of course, you should not rely solely on makeup if you do plan to spend time in the sun. Pop a sunscreen underneath, as well. All of the sunscreens in our store can be used on both face and body, but some are dedicated to the face like Eco By Sonya Face Sunscreen SPF30 and Ethical Zinc Daily Wear Light Sunscreen SPF50+ which have a lighter texture that is preferred by some people for application to the face.
After Sun Care
Caring for our skin extends beyond sun exposure and, after a day spent in the sun, our skin can benefit from a little TLC (or perhaps a lot). There are ways in which you can nurture your sun exposed skin, including:
- taking a shower or soaking in a bath (not too hot) to remove all traces of sunscreen, sweat, salt water, etc.
- immediately following your bath or shower with an all over moisturiser (preferably while your skin is still damp) to replenish your skin's hydration levels from the outside
- soothing sun affected skin with an Aloe Vera gel moisturiser like Every Bit Organic Raw Aloe Vera Gel, which can provide cooling relief for mild sunburn as well as adding some moisture back into the skin
Australia is blessed with plenty of sunshine and a climate that encourages outdoor activities - yay (!) - but don't forget to look after your skin. It is, after all, your body's largest and most exposed organ.
Sources: cancercouncil.com.au; skincancer.org; cancer.org.au; healthline.com; ewg.org
Disclaimer: Naturally Safe Cosmetics and the author 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.